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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 14, 2006

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


High School Musical, R&J, Bikes, Books, Imodium

All of a sudden I was hearing about a movie called High School Musical as if I were an idiot for not having seen it yet.

Of course, I was hearing about it exclusively from twelve-year-olds, but that's not actually a surprise.

In our house, the only cool person is twelve, as proven by the fact that the rest of us still think the names and plots of manga comics and anime tv shows are kind of silly. (The only reason we are still spoken to is because we agree that Miyazaki is a great director.)

I assumed that High School Musical, exclusively offered on the Disney Channel, would be something like Fame -- an overwrought probing of the teenage psyche.

It's way more (and less) than that. There is no pretense here that we're dealing with anything more than the standard themes of early-teen flicks: Acceptance, popularity, being yourself despite peer pressure, young love, and coping with the weird things parents do to your life.

But, when you come to think of it, that's pretty much what most movies are about, if you change the ages....

The style is brash, full-frontal comedy. Which is hardly a surprise, given that the director is Kenny Ortega. Ortega started as a choreographer on such films as Xanadu, One from the Heart, St. Elmo's Fire, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Beuller's Day Off, and culminating with Dirty Dancing.

This earned him a shot at directing -- first Newsies, which many found appalling but some people loved, and then Hocus Pocus. I'm a fan of both Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker (always called "Sarica Jessica" at our house), but Ortega directed this comedy as if it were Broadway choreography: Face the audience, be likeable, grin your lips off, and do the moves.

It didn't work. I sat there in the theater watching Hocus Pocus and instead of laughing, got sadder and sadder at the missed opportunity. It was never, not for a moment, funny.

Ortega has learned something in the thirteen years since then. Oh, his directing style is still brash and obvious, but at least he doesn't think he's deep. High School Musical knows that it is merely playing with standard teen-movie tropes -- Smallville is more believable -- but everybody is so darn likeable, and the script is genuinely entertaining.

The cast seems to be drawn from the Disney Channel's stable of regulars, but they are actually terrific. As expected, we have the "nice couple" who didn't realize how talented they were but somehow talk each other into trying out for the high school musical; and then there is the "mean couple," a brother and sister who own the drama club and always get the leads in the musicals.

High School Musical doesn't make the normal teen-flick mistake of making the "mean couple" also be bad at what they do. In fact, Sharpay and Ryan Evans (Ashley Tisdale and Lucas Grabeel) are downright brilliant, with choreography so good that it left me wondering what in the world the inexperienced "nice couple" could possibly do to win the leads from them.

This is where Kenny Ortega's excellence as a choreographer came through: He gave the "mean couple" great dances, but overdone, vaguely wrong. And then he gave the "nice couple" (Troy Bolton and Gabriella Montez) much simpler but more appropriate choreography.

There are also big production numbers that fantasize on high school life. Rules of reality are suspended, but this is the kind of musical where you don't care -- clearly Ortega knows his Busby Berkeley as well as his Bob Fosse.

Supporting characters are wonderful -- in the tradition of 1930s movie musicals. The drama teacher, the composer-accompanist, the coach dad, the kids on the basketball team and the college-bowl-style academic team -- they do a terrific job.

The result is a traditional musical without any dirty-dancing moves, with a story that is smarter than it needed to be. Kenny Ortega is finally directing the kind of show that fits his sensibilities; it's no accident that kids love this musical. I loved this musical.

And since Disney Channel seems to repeat it every day or so, you won't lack for opportunities to watch it. Of course, if you hate happy teen movies or you loathe musicals, this will just about give you apoplexy. Consider yourself warned.

*

The Summit Players production of Romeo and Juliet opens tonight (Thursday, 18 May) and runs tomorrow and Saturday, always at 7 pm, always free of charge. (At the LDS meetinghouse in Greensboro, on Pinetop Rd. across from Claxton Elementary School. For safety reasons, children under 8 will not be admitted; please leave them home.)

You sit on folding chairs; the sets are minimal; the lighting is primitive. But the acting ranges from good amateur to superb professional quality, the costumes are excellent (from Eastern Costume, Greensboro's greatest claim to theatrical fame), and the shows we put on are fast-moving and tight.

Because we've been immersed in R&J for the past few months, and because the play was about to open, I thought I could finally allow myself to see the 1968 Zeffirelli film.

Back in '68, Romeo and Juliet hit us like a revelation. Zeffirelli did a brilliant job of making the story come to life on the streets of a Renaissance Italian city, and by letting the actors take their time with the dialogue, he made it almost entirely intelligible -- a tough thing to do with Shakespeare on film.

I was seventeen years old when the movie came out and it was so emotionally powerful that it persuaded me I was in love with the girl I was dating at the time. (Fortunately for us both, the delusion faded by summer.)

But now, having directed the play myself twice since then, and with my skeptical twelve-year-old watching beside me, I saw with frustration how Zeffirelli's weaknesses damaged the story as well.

Like most directors of "great tragedy," Zeffirelli forgot that it works best when the audience first experiences the heights from which the hero falls. Yes, the play begins with Romeo mooning over his love of Rosaline -- but the script shows that in the midst of this he is clearly playful, and even though the original jokes are now inscrutable, the opening acts of R&J are meant to be funny, witty, happy. Full of the exuberance of youth.

But Zeffirelli doesn't let us experience a warm friendship among Romeo and his friends Benvolio and Mercutio. Instead, we get a Mercutio who looks like he's in his thirties and who is played as if he is bipolar and delusional. Instead of a jester, he's scary and cruel, so that instead of a bright, happy opening we get a brooding, dangerous one.

A similar thing happens in Juliet's house. Her mother is made into a witch from the start; the nurse is allowed to perform as if she were in a play called "The Story of Juliet's Nurse"; and Juliet herself is played as a bratty, unpleasant girl instead of a funloving, happy one.

Thus the mood is tragic from beginning to end. Such a mistake! The only reason we are moved when the title characters die at the end (I hope I didn't ruin the surprise) is because we love them. But in Zeffirelli's movie, the only reason we would love them is because they're so pretty and so ethereally filmed.

Poor Olivia Hussey even cried like a bratty child throwing a tantrum, not like somebody being torn apart inside.

The movie made a star of Michael York, playing Romeo's dangerous enemy Tybalt. But that's not really a surprise, for Zeffirelli's greatest flaw as a director shows up in the way he handles the fights.

I already knew this from his dreadful movie of The Taming of the Shrew, starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The wooing scene in that movie, instead of being a delightful romp, was a tedious, heavy-handed, endless demonstration of the director's ability to lose all sense of proportion.

I didn't realize it at the time I saw Zeffirelli's R&J, being only seventeen, but the same flaw showed up in the fight scenes. They went on and on. They were pushed farther than the storyline would bear.

The brawl that opens the movie was too brutal; the fights between Tybalt and Mercutio and then between Romeo and Tybalt went on far, far too long, straining both patience and credulity as Zeffirelli moved them through every street of the medieval town in which he was filming.

The trouble is that Romeo's killing of Tybalt only works for the story if it takes place in a sudden, brief fight that happens immediately upon learning that Mercutio has died. He tries to compensate by making Tybalt's death almost accidental.

Above all, Zeffirelli forgot that these are kids. Oh, their lives are real enough -- they carry swords! -- but their passions are quick, exuberant, and hot. He missed it. For all that he cast a 17-year-old Romeo and a 15-year-old Juliet (only two years above their ages in the script), he kept forgetting their youth at key moments of the script.

Naturally, it also drove my twelve-year-old crazy that the story was so cut apart, especially at the end, where insane things happen for no reason. Why is Friar Laurence filled with foreboding, when he doesn't know that his letter to Romeo was never delivered? Since the fight with Paris at the tomb is eliminated, and thus Paris's page does not run for help, why does the city watch come to the graveyard, provoking Laurence to run away? And since Paris isn't dead, and we're never told that Mercutio was the Prince's relative, what does the prince mean at the end when he says that he himself has lost a "brace of kinsmen"?

In other words, our youngest child is born to be an editor.

Here's the happy news: Even with these flaws, Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet

remains a landmark Shakespearean film. He might have misunderstood the mood of the opening; he might have missed the youth and exuberance of the characters; he might have let some actors run away with performances that did not support the overall story; he might have indulged his love of overdone fight sequences.

But he made a great film anyway. He absolutely succeeded in integrating the script with its setting -- making an English play into an Italian story better than Shakespeare ever did. He made if feel real in a way that film must and stage drama never can.

And Leonard Whiting's performance as Romeo is so endearing, so honest, that it almost makes up for Olivia Hussey's bratty, shallow one. At the end, we love this couple because we love Romeo -- and we believe that others might die for love of him.

Which is why it makes me sad that Whiting seems to have had the least successful acting career after this production. Olivia Hussey is still working, as are John McEnery (Mercutio) and Michael York. None of them had the career they might have hoped for, though York's oeuvre does include the brilliant Musketeers films.

But they worked. Whiting ... disappeared. Perhaps he was just too pretty. Or unlucky. But if you have to have a career with little more than a single great role, you could do a lot worse than to have it be the Romeo that Whiting created in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.

*

This Friday -- May 19th -- is Bike to Work Day.

I won't be taking part, myself. I'm a great believer in using bicycles for real transportation rather than mere recreation. But even though my mountain bike has some very low gears, it's so much easier just to walk up the stairs to my attic office.

(I'm set for "Climb the Stairs to Work Day," however. My wife says we're not getting an elevator.)

When you ride a bike for recreation, your starting and ending point are usually the same -- you start at home, ride around for a while, and return home. Or if you plan a more elaborate trip, you usually arrange for a way to carry the bike -- on a rack on your car, for instance.

To use a bike for real transportation, however, you must find a way to store your bike safely while you're at your destination.

For instance, I like to ride my bike to the health club where I work out. (In fact, I feel a little stupid driving a car to get have physical exercise. It's like taking an elevator to the gym.) But there is nowhere to park and lock my bicycle -- no secure rack in plain view of the front windows of the health club.

Fortunately, the management lets me bring the bike inside -- but as far as I know, only two of us even ride our bikes there. If more of us did, they couldn't continue to allow us to park indoors.

I have a basket on my bike, and I'd enjoy running errands on my bike. Only there's nowhere at Harris-Teeter or Kerr Drugs or Fresh Market or Earth Fare to park my bicycle and have any hope of having it still be there when I emerge with my purchases in hand.

If it is ever to be practical to ride bikes to work -- which would benefit everyone -- employers need to provide bike racks that are in plain view of well-trafficked areas.

At first, all it would take is a single automobile parking place with a bike rack in it -- you could park six or seven bikes there. As bicycle commuting caught on, they might need to add more. But when you consider that each bicycle represents a car that won't be seeking a parking place, it's a no-lose proposition.

You'd think employers would want to get on this bandwagon: Employees who bicycle to work are going to be physically healthier and therefore will save you money on health insurance. Instead, they tend to look at you as if you're crazy.

Of course, parking places are only part of the problem. The narrow streets and lack of sidewalks in Greensboro make riding a bicycle perilous to start with; add to that the stupidity, selfishness, and recklessness of some automobile drivers, and bicycle riding isn't so much a sport as an evolutionary test.

Still, it feels good to be outdoors on a bicycle, to move across the ground swiftly and yet entirely under your own power. And if you rode your bike to work every day, you'd feel better, you'd look better, your clothes would fit better, and you'd be healthier.

Isn't it worth a try this Friday? Or whatever day you feel like trying it -- can't guarantee it won't rain, and that is a bummer on a bicycle.

Several organizations are cooperating to help support the effort on Friday. They're offering several "refueling" locations across the triad, where you can get a combination of refreshment, encouragement, and a sense of solidarity. In High Point, it's at The Depot (100 W. High Street), and in Greensboro, you can go to Festival Park at 200 N. Davie, or Friendly Bike at Quaker Village (5605 W. Friendly Ave.).

For more information, check out www.pedpower.org.

Meanwhile, how can we get automobile drivers to get used to making room for bikes on the road? I think the best way would be to get a bunch of pedicabs or hackcycles (taxicles?) onto the roads -- you know, rickshaws where the puller pedals rather than runs.

If the city licensed them to carry passengers around downtown or in Friendly Center, or to and from cars in the mall parking lot, or from one box store on Battleground Ave. to another, I think there'd be plenty of eager passengers (not to mention kids just wanting a ride); and car drivers would become used to having lane-filling vehicles that move at bicycle speeds share the road with them.

*

In my ongoing project to read everything by David Lubar, I just finished Flip, a young-adult novel about some kids who come across the alien equivalent of the Biography Channel.

It seems that these aliens create disks that put the lives of heroes directly into your brain, like memories. But the disks were designed for other species to use; when humans absorb them (literally) it gives them far more than memories.

The premise is fun, but Lubar doesn't settle for mere humor (though there's plenty of that). The main characters are a pair of non-identical twins. Taylor, the girl, is a perfectionist, always following rules and determined to excel at everything.

Ryan, the boy, is almost the opposite -- always getting in trouble and such a disappointment to his father that his life at home as become a virtual prison. Everything he values has been taken away from him as punishment.

But it all seems to come down to an incident when Ryan was six years old. He showed some early talent at the skills of baseball, and his father, a diehard fan, pushed him so hard that it took all the joy out of it for Ryan. He quit -- deliberately failed -- and ever since then he's been a quitter and loser in his father's eyes.

To the point that his father seriously considers administering drugs to him that would turn him into a zombie -- but compliant with adult authority.

Only Taylor seems to realize that for all his maddening behavior, Ryan is still a good person who deserves some leeway.

Add to this mix a couple of other unforgettable characters -- Ryan's insanely talkative and insecure friend Ellis, and the deeply believable school bully, Billy Snooks -- and you have a novel that far transcends the lighthearted sci-fi premise.

Adolescence is precisely the time of life when humans need to try on different identities to find out who they are and who they want to be; it is also the time when people put the most pressure on us to be who they think we ought to be. And both processes are essential to the maintenance of a civilized society.

Lubar captures this dilemma in a moving, sometimes frightening, and ultimately satisfying story that is entertaining all the way through.

*

Elswyth Thane's Yankee Stranger, the second of her "Williamsburg novels," was published in 1944, in the wake of Gone with the Wind; and one could certainly make a case for its having been influenced by Mitchell's masterpiece of historical fiction.

Certainly the hero, Cabot Murray, has the kind of rough insouciance that Rhett Butler shows.

But that's about as far as the similarities go. Yankee Stranger is an unabashed romance, but of an earlier, gentler, sweeter time -- referring both to the setting and to the era when it was written. Thane is a more old-fashioned writer than Mitchell, inclined to use the omniscient viewpoint of 19th-century fiction more often than was fashionable in 1944 (and certainly more than today).

So the characters don't hop into bed -- and while the sexual tension can be quite strong sometimes, it is always kept within the bounds that decent people followed both in 1861 and 1944. (We have since redefined "decency" so far downward that it has almost disappeared.)

Even though Thane centered her novels around old Virginia families, the author was born "Helen Ricker" in Burlington, Iowa, in 1900, and moved to New York in her teens. Her father was a teacher and school principal; she herself worked as a newspaper writer and screenwriter, and one of her novels was made into a play. She married William Beebe, a naturalist and explorer twenty-three years older than she was.

These life experiences show up repeatedly in her Williamsburg books -- several characters are writers, but consider themselves craftsmen, not "special"; several characters are schoolteachers or run schools. She has a fondness for "inappropriate" marriages between women and markedly older men. And a woman who changes her name from "Helen Ricker" to the far more elegant "Elswyth Thane" clearly has romance in her heart.

Thane writes an elegant sentence and her dialogue is witty; it's the storyline, though, that makes this novel so beautiful and rewarding to read. Oddly enough, however, while the plot mainly follows the romance of Southern Eden Day and Yankee Cabot Murray, the storylines that break your heart and linger longest are those of Susanna and Sedgwick, double first-cousins who quite accidentally fall in love and realize at once that there is no possibility that they can marry; and of Melicent, Cabot Murray's young half-sister who does not understand why her father seems not to love her and suppresses her own quite-remarkable musical talent.

The treatment of the Civil War is by no means exhaustive. Williamsburg was occupied by the North quite early in the Civil War and remained under Yankee occupation from then on, so that passing from there to Richmond meant crossing enemy lines. Thus, while their lives are touched by the great battles as men go off to war and women nurse the wounded, the actual experience of war, after the Seven Days around Richmond, is one of deprivation, smuggling, and espionage. All of this Thane handles deftly, making it at personal while also bringing home what life during wartime means when your home state is the battleground.

I suppose what moves me most in fiction are incidents of good people doing good things in trying circumstances -- in short, nobility of soul. It abounds in Yankee Stranger; and even though Thane never received any serious critical attention, and her books remain in print largely because of the Williamsburg connection, if you are also drawn to fiction that shows people at their best, I urge you to seek them out.

*

On my list of Wonderful Things about Modern Life, I have just added Imodium AD.

People used to die of dysentery all the time. And a lot more people wished they could die.

You can go through years of your life without even thinking of Imodium, but one nice little bout of food poisoning or violent allergic response, and suddenly Imodium is your dearest friend, your rescuer, your comfort, your warm helping hand.

Excuse me for getting so emotional about it. But right now, while the memory is freshly in mind, Imodium is very dear to me.


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