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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 15, 2007

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


Planet Earth, Jackson's Mistakes, Dawning, Mike

If you haven't been watching the Discovery Channel series Planet Earth, start now. With any luck, you can catch reruns of some of the early episodes.

This is simply the best series of genuine (instead of simulated) film sequences of natural forms and animal life I've ever seen. Bank of America, bless their hearts, sponsors this absolutely gorgeous series.

It pulls no punches -- when predators catch their prey, no matter how cute, we see it. (We don't watch the actual moment of death.)

It is astonishing to see that when, after a long chase, the wolf catches the baby caribou, the as-yet-uninjured caribou simply lies down in the grass, exhausted and defeated. It's as if, even though the stakes are life and death, the caribou realizes it has lost and suffers the penalty with good sportsmanship.

Sometimes the photography is enhanced by slowing down or speeding up the action -- legitimate because the sequence is still real. At other times, you almost gasp at what the photographer has been able to capture on film: How can he track the rapid downhill chase of a snow leopard after a mountain goat?

At other times, it's nature itself that puts you in awe: The display of a male bird of paradise is almost frightening in its magnificent absurdity.

Sigourney Weaver does a good job of narrating without ever calling attention to herself. She has a great voice for this.

The nature-loving producers and photographers definitely have a conservation agenda on their minds -- and so do I! But they never get preachy -- not even about global warming. Their goal is to show us nature truthfully, and then trust us to have the brains to realize that we don't want these creatures and places destroyed.

*

Recently I had the pleasure of taking part in an all-day marathon watching of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies. Starting at eleven a.m., with a couple of short meal breaks, we finished up before midnight.

The other participants were 16- to 18-year-old men from my church; we had decided to do the LOTR marathon after a class I taught. I sat in the back and watched, not just the movie, but these young men as they watched it.

They are perfectly capable of rowdy, fun-filled movie watching -- they know how to talk back to the screen and run Mystery-Science-Theater-style commentaries on silly movies. Or even not-so-silly ones.

But LOTR is different for them. They watched it in committed silence. This movie, like the books it is based on, is a return to the great tradition of heroic storytelling.

We forget, in our society, that adolescence, for males at least, is not the age of preparation-for-career or getting-an-education, even though that's what we compel them to do.

Adolescence is the age of heroism. The age of poetry. The age of great dreams and noble ideals. The age of sacrifice.

That's why human beings have always made their armies out of men this age: because they are willing to throw their whole lives into something that they believe is worth doing.

They hunger for something great to do. When cynical liars get to them, men of this age can be talked into strapping bombs on their bodies and blowing themselves up.

However, terrorist groups have discovered that the under-twenty men are too idealistic -- and too independent. They are simply not as reliable as slightly older and more obedient would-be bombers: The teenagers are too likely to think for themselves and say, Why am I killing these children? (They're also too likely to become careless and get caught.)

Our society, thank God, does not ask our young men to become terrorists, and if they do, we are ashamed of them and punish them. We do, however, ask them to make great sacrifices when they join the military.

Most of our young men are not in the military. They are trapped in the endless holding pattern of high school and college, and they chafe at the bonds holding them to this grind. Of course they do! During the very years when they dream of and yearn for great deeds and heroic sacrifices, we yoke them to the academic plow.

Thank heaven for something like Lord of the Rings. Unlike the edgy (and stupid) films that get the most praise in Hollywood (though the greatness of Peter Jackson's film was, finally, not overlooked), LOTR offers true nobility as an ideal to be aspired to.

The actors say heroic words and then match them with noble deeds. We know that terrible things must be attempted even if they seem doomed to failure. We know that right is more important than might; and these young men responded. It does not replace their religion, but it becomes part of it. As well it should.

Yet during this marathon watching of the film, I -- and these young men -- were so annoyed at the three big mistakes Jackson made in adapting Tolkien's work.

The first and biggest of them was Jackson's decision not to include the Scouring of the Shire -- the time, after the great war is over, when the Hobbits come back to find their safe little homeland torn up and nearly ruined by a group of thugs. They drive them out, of course, but what matters is that without their realizing it, their own homes were in jeopardy.

They went away to war, yet the war came to their homes while they were gone. What made Jackson think this was not an important part of the story?

Yet in interviews Jackson has declared that he never cared for the Scouring of the Shire, apparently because it was anticlimactic. This only shows that ultimately he did not really understand Tolkien. Omitting this sequence robs the story of some of its meaning.

It would be like ending the movie Poltergeist after the little girl returns to her family, omitting the real ending of the movie!

Worse yet, it deforms the ending. Without this incident, the movie feels like it has four or five endings. Like it just won't stop ending. So it turns Tolkien's very-satisfying ending into a repetitive, tedious one.

The other mistakes Jackson makes aren't as grave, but in some ways they are just as annoying. In the book, Faramir (Boromir's brother) is an archetype: The heroic servant. His loyalty is perfect, yet he serves his father, not by mindless obedience, but rather by acting as his father should have wanted him to. It is important that Faramir refuses to reach out his hand to take the ring, either for himself or for his father.

In the movie, however, in a meaningless attempt to increase the jeopardy, Jackson has Faramir force Frodo and Sam to come to Gondor, and only after an encounter with the Nazgul does he change his mind and let him continue his quest.

The final mistake is the stupidest: Jackson didn't just beef up the role of Arwen, the elfwoman betrothed to Aragorn, he actually has Elrond announce that, for completely unfathomable reasons, Arwen's survival has become linked to that of the land. So if Aragorn fails to save Middle-Earth, Arwen will die.

This reeks of film-school incompetence. "Raise the jeopardy," the students are told; and the directors and studio heads are now insisting on the same thing, even if it is stupid and contradictory to everything in the story.

It's not enough, they think, for Aragorn to be struggling to save the world from all-destroying evil, or even for him to be attempting to claim the crown he was born for but has long been denied. No, his girlfriend also has to be in jeopardy of dying.

They don't get it: A hero does not need the stakes to be personal. He is a hero because he has taken responsibility for the people he is saving. His honor has made the stakes personal already. Putting his fiancee into the mix is a distraction, even a cheapening of the hero's actions.

For those who know my novel Ender's Game, let's just say that I recently fended off an insane attempt to do the same thing to that story. For real heroes, saving the world is already personal.

I mean, let's get real. Did Jesus also have to have his mother on trial before Pontius Pilate in order to make his sacrifice really urgent to him? Yet I think that's what studio execs or confused directors would insist on today before filming an Easter movie.

Jackson accomplished great things with LOTR. But he also misunderstood the story he was telling. Wherever he departed significantly from Tolkien's original storyline, he did not make the movie or the story better, he made them worse.

The movie is brilliant. But the truthful story is in the books. Tolkien was the brilliant creator, Jackson merely the disciple.

The young men who watched with me understood it all. They knew this story was important and, in its own way, sacred. They loved the movie, but cared about the true story that lay beneath it.

Lord of the Rings was the greatest work of literature of the twentieth century, period. Those who think it was James Joyce's Ulysses are deluded. The story buried inside Joyce's literary pretension and self-indulgence is a fundamentally trivial one. It has no power to inspire the hearts of an age. It is a book designed to impress, not to inspire or ennoble or transform.

Tolkien set out to create an epic, and he succeeded so well that a talented but miseducated filmmaker could not destroy its power despite his mistakes.

*

I picked up Ronan Tynan's cd The Dawning of the Day in WalMart (where I am forced to shop when I'm in Lexington, Virginia, there being few other retail outlets likely to have much of anything I need). I knew nothing about Tynan, but the cover art gave the impression of dignity and quality.

The track titles suggested a religious album, but beyond that I knew nothing -- I didn't even know if Tynan was a singer or an instrumentalist.

How else do you find new music? I know, you go online. But I wasn't online at that moment, I was in WalMart.

Buying religious music is always such a gamble. Much -- no, let's be honest -- most of the time it's pretty sad stuff. Boring arrangements, with performers who have nothing to recommend them except the earnestness of their faith.

Sincerity doesn't record half so well as, say, talent, skill, and the ability to sing a song convincingly. But that classy-looking cover promised that somebody involved with this album knew something about what they were doing.

Then I heard the orchestra and I knew a moment's thrill. Thought I: I've really found something here! The instrumentation was lush -- this was not recorded in somebody's basement -- and the orchestration was skillful, often inventive, and occasionally thrilling.

Then Tynan began to sing, and I thought, Aw, shucks, we came so close.

Not that he's a bad singer. In fact, he's a terrific singer. But he has that kind of overtrained voice where you can feel the artificiality in every syllable. He shapes his vowels and consonants so carefully that it sounds like he has a foreign accent, though he doesn't. He just left natural English behind sometime during his training.

There's a forced tone to his voice. But I know enough about singing to understand what's going on here. Tynan has a voice that is so powerful that he could fill a large hall with a tremendous volume of sound -- without a microphone.

The trouble is, voices that are brilliant in a concert hall don't always record well. Quirks of tone that are lost in the reverberation of a hall become glaringly obvious coming through speakers inside your house. (The reverse is also true: There are singers who record very well, but who can hardly make their presence known in a live performance. Their voices literally get lost in space.)

The good news is that within moments, all the small irritations of Tynan's voice were forgotten, or at least forgiven, because in most cases, the music is skillfully arranged to make the most of the things he does well. He's loud -- so he sings with a loud orchestra; he's bombastic, so the orchestra is forceful.

I didn't love all the song choices. It doesn't mean I'm unpatriotic when I say that I'm really, really tired of the boring melody of "God Bless America" -- if you don't have the natural lushness of a Bessie Smith or Mahalia Jackson, don't take on this song. And "On Eagle's Wings" may be fun to sing, but the song, while well-intentioned and very loud, goes nowhere.

But there are other songs that were worth the price of the album. Grand old hymns like "Be Still My Soul" and "Faith of Our Fathers" are brought to new life. And Vince Gill's song "Go Rest High on That Mountain" is heartbreaking and sweet as performed here -- it brought me to tears.

The jewel of the album is "Morning Has Broken," in large part because Vince Gill joins Tynan, taking a verse and showing us how powerful simplicity and naturalness can sometimes be. In a concert hall, unmiked, Tynan would blow Gill off the stage; in a recording, Gill makes Tynan sound like he's trying too hard. It's Gill who brings the song to life.

Not everyone will love this album. It has flaws, but its good points are so good that I'll be listening to it more than once. And if I get a chance to hear Tynan in concert, I'll do it.

*

By the way, I'm really sick of people who spell the short word for microphone M-I-C. There are rules to English spelling and pronunciation, and "mic" has to be pronounced like "mick." Or, since it looks foreign, "meek."

And what about when we use the word as a verb? "Mic him," says the radio director. Or, worse yet, how would you turn that into the past tense verb -- "The technician miced him?" We know how that would be pronounced.

Ordinarily, we'd borrow from the French and spell the past tense of a verb ending in "c" like this: "The technician miqued him." But that has to be pronounced "meeked."

At last, desperate editors are starting to resort to the wretched, ugly, abominable, and indefensible apostrophe: "The technician mic'ed him." I'd rather slit my wrists than adopt that gross error. Especially because there's an easy, obvious, natural, correct English language spelling of the word.

For years, I (and everyone else I know) spelled the word M-I-K-E. Past tense is easy: "The technician miked him."

Yes, just like the name: Mike. But so what? We have tons of words in English that are spelled just like completely unrelated words, and we never get confused.

Does anyone think that this sentence begins with a reference to female deer?

Let's be frank: When I say, "I'm afraid he's going to sue me," do you even for a moment think this has something to do with a girl named Sue? Or Frank, for that matter?

When you pay your bills, when you bob for apples, when you grill some ground chuck, when a traffic signal turns amber, when you buy a fishing rod, do you look around for someone named Bill, Bob, Chuck, Amber, or Rod?

So what's with this deformed, ugly, unpronounceable bit of nonsense, "mic"? The natural, easy-to-read, and therefore only-acceptable spelling of the shortened form of microphone is "mike."

Thus it is spoken. So let it be spelled.

*

Even though I'm a skeptic of the value of talk therapy in dealing with deep mental illness, Jonathan Kellerman's mystery novels centered on Alex Delaware, a child psychologist who consults with the police, do a wonderful job of showing what talk therapy can do.

Kellerman's new Alex Delaware novel, Obsession, is one of the best yet in this long-running series. The story begins when a nurse who once brought her daughter to Delaware for treatment dies suddenly of a fast-moving liver cancer. On her deathbed, she confesses -- vaguely -- to an unspecified crime. But it sounds like it might have been murder, and the daughter comes to Alex, hoping his police connections will resolve the mystery.

It turns out there were several unsolved murders that left whatever the mother did in the dust. If there's a flaw in the story it's that Kellerman never explains (to my satisfaction, anyway) why the monstrous murderer focuses on Delaware's patient as a target for murder. But that's truly almost a trivial point.

After all the action is over, there's a leftover piece of business -- Alex Delaware's promise to meet with the child of a criminal informant in exchange for the information he gave.

The mother of the child has a different idea about what her son needs, so Alex's meeting is with her; and in the course of the interview, he learns a bit of information that may or may not be true -- but if it is, it revises the meaning of all that went before, adding a layer of bitter irony to the story.

Kellerman isn't writing thrillers. He's writing mysteries -- but the mystery of the human soul is the center of the story. Fortunately, he isn't religious about it -- neither the religion of psychotherapy, of political correctness, nor of Kellerman's own Jewish faith is presented as the dogmatic truth.

The book asserts only that human beings do things for reasons, both conscious and not; and those reasons are worth understanding, especially because, sometimes at least, what you know about a person can heal, protect, or even save somebody.

I listened to this book in an unabridged recording by John Rubinstein. I've had the great pleasure of seeing Rubinstein perform on stage, and he's an absolutely fantastic actor: You can't take your eyes off him.

On tape, with a much subtler presentation, he's just as compelling. You forget that you're hearing only one voice. It feels as if you're in the presence of real people having real conversations. If you have the time and can afford a more expensive version of the book, this book is much better experienced with Rubinstein reading it to you.

*

The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly is not part of any series. Connelly's Harry Bosch novels are longtime favorites -- Connelly is one of the reasons why mystery novelists are now the true "literary" novelists of our day, recording our culture in well-written, deeply characterized, yet unpretentious novels that can be read for pleasure by volunteers.

Now Connelly has turned his hand to the legal thriller genre dominated by John Grisham, and without much effort Connelly shows his mastery. The story is about a "Lincoln lawyer" -- a lawyer without an office, who operates his practice out of the trunk of his Lincoln Town Car, chasing down potential clients by listening to police radio.

But this lawyer has some ideals, and when he realizes that he once unknowingly pressured an innocent client into pleading guilty, he take enormous risks to set him free. This is greatly complicated by the fact that the man who really did that crime -- and many others -- is his current client.

How can he reconcile legal ethics with the fact that the only way to free the innocent man is to violate the lawyer-client privilege of the guilty one?

All I can tell you after that is that Connelly takes no shortcuts. There's no free ride. What there is is a terrific entertainment wrapped around a morally complicated, unforgettable story.

*

In this world of recorded music, it's easy to become too busy to go to hear music performed in person.

With rock stars, you usually don't go to concerts to "hear" anything at all -- the music is painfully loud, and the experience is really social. You go in order to be part of a mob, to experience the ambiance.

When you want classical music, you pop in a cd and hear a "perfect" performance.

Of course, as often as not what you're hearing is something quite different. You're hearing the result of multiple takes, with mistakes removed. It's as if you were getting, not a performance, but the ideal performance.

And that's a good thing (though often one listener's "ideal" is another's "disaster").

But there's another good thing: to go to live performances. There are no second takes. Whatever goes on in the hall that night is the performance. The voices that sing are not faceless recording artists -- you can see the lips form the words, watch the singers take the breaths that will produce the sound.

You can't buy a recording that includes the experience of being in the room, in the presence of the music.

But you can come to the Greensboro Oratorio Society's performance of John Rutter's beautiful Magnificat ("My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord"). Soprano Leah Tenney will solo with the choir under the direction of Jay O. Lambeth.

Many of us already know John Rutter's work; his Christmas carols are among the most beautiful of our time, and his arrangements of other songs are glorious indeed.

The program also includes composer Frank Hayes's new setting of the Te Deum ("We Praise You, O God"), with Annette Tilley (mezzo) and Roger Gibbs (baritone) as soloists.

Come this Friday night (20 April 2007) to the Phillips Chapel at Canterbury School, 5400 Old Lake Jeanette Rd. in Greensboro. Admission is $10 at the door, but advance tickets are $7 and can be reserved by callling (336) 373-4553. Seniors (60+) and students with i.d. pay only $7 at the door.


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