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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 6, 2007

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


Spider-Man 3, Literary Con Men, Snape, Innocent Man

I don't have a lot to say about Spider-Man 3. As with the other two Spider-Man movies, it's a combination of in-jokes and extravagant villains for comics fans, big special effects sequences designed to sell the videogame, lots of comedy to keep you laughing, and a surprisingly sweet and touching human story about characters you can almost believe in and care about.

It's that last one that sets the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies apart from other comics-based films. And in this movie, that story still works pretty well. Raimi cast terrific actors in all the leads, and they do a great job.

I especially salute Topher Grace's entry into the villain category -- if he were in any more scenes he'd steal the movie. And Bryce Dallas Howard, who at first seems to be playing a character who's nothing but a screaming bimbo, turns out to be a real actress who is given powerful things to do and does them wonderfully well.

In fact, all three villains are the best-acted in the franchise's history -- James Franco is at his best (except for one horrible "menace face" done in front of a mirror), and Thomas Haden Church brings off all the turns of his character.

Theresa Russell injects a note of much-needed reality as the longsuffering ex-wife of Church's bad guy, and Mageina Tovah is magical once again as the girl next door. I want to see her in a lot more movies!

It's also fun to see Bruce Campbell, who starred in Raimi's first cheap horror films (and wrote If Chins Could Kill), is brought back for a funny bit as a fake French maitre-d' who has romance in his heart.

But time after time, the silliness undercut the serious storyline. Yes, it got laughs, but at what cost? Comic-book dialogue did not belong in the same movie with the realistic scenes, so that the phony lines said by "men in the street" as they reacted to Spidey's new black suit made me -- and many others in the audience -- cringe.

The worst sequence was when black-suit Spider-Man is feeling his cool. Raimi never made up his mind how he was playing this. Half the women who passed him acted appalled, as if he were embarrassing himself (which he was); but the other half reacted as if he were really cool.

Which was it? I remember in Jerry Lewis's The Nutty Professor when his potion turned him from geek to cool. What made it work was that he was really cool. Raimi didn't seem to know that, and so he tried to have it both ways all at once.

The climax of this sequence gives Tobey Maguire the chance to humiliate himself completely in a dance sequence. It ends poignantly -- but I can promise you, this sequence will be trotted out again and again, whenever people want to ridicule Maguire.

The writers seemed to care about the movie; Raimi wasn't sure whether he was spoofing his own work or telling a heartfelt tale.

Does it matter? This movie made a ton of money before I even saw it on Monday.

But yes, it does matter. Because I think that, like Titanic and Back to the Future, this movie will pall with time. When the suspense is gone, the cringe moments will remain and become, if possible, even cringier.

Meanwhile, though, we had a good time and, because we still cared about the well-written, well-acted characters, we were moved. And we laughed. And we cared how the action sequences came out.

Still ... what failure of imagination was it that made them repeat the car-about-to-fall-on-Mary Jane Watson threat four times, with two different vehicles? By the end of that passage, people were laughing.

OK, I was laughing. But I'm people, aren't I?

*

Note to city government: A bike lane isn't a bike lane if you can legally park a car in it. In fact, it is now worse than an unmarked road, because drivers will now expect bike riders to stay on their side of the white line.

Every parked car you pass now requires a "lane" change, and you have to "enter" a lane of traffic full of drivers who think you don't have a right to be in their lane. Your life just got harder and more perilous.

Real bike lanes are between the car lanes and the curb parking lane (or curb parking is forbidden). So far, no such thing exists in Greensboro, no matter what the people putting down those useless white stripes might say.

*

I just had the privilege of advising a friend to cut off his hand rather than sign a contract with a subsidy publishing house.

How do you know if it's a subsidy house? If they require you to buy a certain number of copies of the book you are supposedly "selling" them, they are not a publisher.

Instead, they're running a con. A rip-off. A scam. They're preying on naive (and often elderly) people who always meant to write a book and now they have. Or people who have a dream of being a famous author and don't believe the big publishers will look at their book.

These con men send you a contract that contains a lot of language that sounds as if they'll send you on author tours, they'll publish your book in foreign languages or send it off to Hollywood for somebody to decide whether to make a movie out of it.

They'll do none of these things. They make their complete profit from the copies they compel you to buy. If any more copies are sold, it will be by your efforts alone.

Don't do it. Submit your manuscript only to real publishers. There are lots of them. True, the big boys usually won't look at your manuscript if you don't have an agent, but there are lots of small presses that will give it a look. And if they want it, they will not ask you to buy the books yourself.

What if no publisher wants to take your book? Or let's say you're getting on in years; this is the book you always meant to write, and now you've written it. You want to see it in print!

Well, print it yourself. Go to a reputable printing house -- there are dozens in Guilford County alone -- and ask them to help you design the book and have it printed and bound in an affordable form.

Who says it even has to be hardbound? It might be enough to have it photocopied and plastic bound. Just set up the page in two-column format and 10-point type, with 3/4-inch margins, and you'll have a nice, easily readable manuscript that can be printed in a fraction of the page count.

Suppose you want all your friends and relatives to have a copy. Let's say that's about a hundred people. Printing a hundred copies is expensive on a per-copy basis. But the total is way cheaper than the thousands of dollars it will cost to print 500 copies, 400 of which you will never sell or give away in your lifetime.

Give your book as a gift to those who will value it because they love you. Don't let con men make a huge profit on copies that will still be stacked in boxes in your garage when you die.

If you're serious about writing books, then don't sell yourself short. If nobody wants your first book, you won't even know that until after you've already written your second, third, and fourth. Writers who intend to make a career at it keep on writing until something sells.

But subsidy publishing isn't "selling" your book -- it's buying it, and letting somebody else make the money from you.

Surely that's not what you had in mind.

*

A while ago I reviewed Susanna Clarke's brilliant debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Last year she came out with a slim story collection called The Ladies of Grace Adieu.

I always dread story collections by someone who just had a hit novel. Often the collection is a dumping ground for all the stories that the author wrote before he became any good at his craft.

But I needn't have worried about Susanna Clarke. While some of the stories are slight, all of them are worthy.

They are also set in the same magical version of England that was introduced in Strange & Norrell. So we meet the Raven King again, and Jonathan Strange, and fairies that work their utterly narcissistic will on poor humans.

If you haven't tackled that hefty novel, The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a way to get a taste of the world. I think that you'll find yourself charmed into wanting to immerse yourself at greater length. And if not, you'll have lost little.

The audio production is very good. Using two actors, Simon Prebble and Davina Porter, was an effective way of distinguishing among the viewpoint characters, and both are consummate readers.

*

If you're a Harry Potter fanatic -- and what sensible reader isn't? -- you might enjoy The Great Snape Debate, a book that can only be purchased at Borders.

The book consists of various essayists explaining, in great detail, exactly why they believe Snape is a Good Guy or a Bad Guy.

One of those essayists is me. But I've already been paid.

The reason I'm pointing this out right now is: There are only a couple of months left till the final Harry Potter book comes out. At that point, we'll know whether Snape is Good or Evil.

But doggone it, if I turn out to be wrong, then it's Rowling's mistake, not mine! Because after the way she's set him up, Snape just has to be ...

Buy the book and join the argument!

*

For years I've thought Nabisco's "Ritz Bits" mini-cracker sandwiches were just about the best snack on the market -- both the cheese and the peanut butter variety.

But then I became aware of the potential problems with high-fructose corn syrup and other substances in the Nabisco version and swore off them (along with most of the other treats I really liked).

Fortunately, Earth Fare has a substitute that's better than the original: Late July Organic Mini, in both peanut butter and cheddar cheese.

(Just in case anyone wonders, however, these are not diet snacks. If you want to lose weight, you should eat no snacks, an item you don't have to search for at any store.)

*

I bought John Grisham's The Innocent Man to listen to on cd; and then, for months, I didn't listen to it.

The reason is simple enough. Grisham's most recent novels have been, in a phrase, not very good. And while The Innocent Man was not a novel, that was actually worse, because the whole premise of it is that, as the title suggests, an innocent man was put on death row for a murder he didn't commit.

So that means I'm going to spend an abridged book's worth of time listening to a story of injustice in which the good guys lose?

It sounded depressing. I kept choosing other books to listen to first.

Till I was finally down to Michael Crichton's Next and this one.

I started Next and gave up after fifteen minutes in disgust. I can remember when Crichton actually began his novels with characters. Or at least something I cared about.

Now Crichton's doing what James Michener did in his declining years: He's starting with lectures. Michener's were history lectures; Crichton's are about science or industrial espionage or whatever, but when you start a novel with a tedious detective stalking a tedious subject who apparently stole some tissue samples -- I just didn't care.

So I took Next out of the cd player in the car and put in The Innocent Man and ... what took me so long?

The Innocent Man is a powerful story, read brilliantly by Dennis Boutsikaris (you've seen him on screen many times).

There is no doubt right from the start who the guilty person is.

Grisham writes like an honest journalist and gives only the evidence -- but the evidence is clear enough.

Someone on the police force was shielding the guilty man because he was useful in the drug traffic that a crooked cop was running. So instead, the police flailed around until they found a hapless fellow whom the crime could be pinned on.

The man they found, Ron Williamson, had once been the pro-baseball-playing town hero in Ada, Oklahoma. But a combination of alcoholism and growing schizophrenia had turned him into something just this side of a homeless person. His family still loved him, but he couldn't hold a job and he was a dreaded loud drunk in every bar he frequented.

In other words, he was an easy, prominent target. He happened to live close to the victim. And even though nobody saw him anywhere near her on the night she was killed, they did, eventually, find enough phony jailhouse snitches to get him locked up.

But because the police on the scene had decided there was "too much violence" for the crime to have been perpetrated by a single murderer, they needed to pair him with a co-killer. So they also used jailhouse snitches to lay the crime at the door of Dennis Fritz, a high school teacher who hadn't seen Williamson for months before the day of the murder.

It was a flimsy case, and the "science" involved was pathetic. Even before CSI hit the airwaves, juries could be fooled by fake science. Never mind that hair samples are never conclusive -- if you talk fancy enough, juries will be bowled over.

So, as you might expect, Ron Williamson was convicted; the shocker was that Dennis Fritz, against whom there was no evidence, was convicted first! Fritz was only given a life sentence; Williamson was sentenced to death.

There followed a nightmare of years of imprisonment. Fritz became a jailhouse lawyer, since there were no automatic appeals for him; he had to write his own appeals.

Williamson got lots of appeals -- and there were, obviously, plenty of grounds. But every court of appeals turned his case down without any serious effort to examine the records of his trial -- for those records, on their face, revealed so many improprieties that it was a joke.

Meanwhile, Williamson was on death row, without serious medical attention for his obvious mental illness. They couldn't give him treatment, for the simple reason that in order to execute him, he had to be mentally competent. How can you call a man mentally competent when you have to give him massive doses of drugs for his mental illness?

Add to this the cruelty of guards who taunted this obviously insane man, and you have one of the saddest stories I've ever read.

It ends "happily" enough -- a stay granted days before the execution, and heroic lawyers and an brave appellate judge who did what should have been done in the first place.

Even then, without DNA evidence (not available at the time of the trial) it's likely Williamson would have been killed and Fritz imprisoned for life for a crime they had nothing to do with, while the guilty man, for whom there was plenty of evidence, served a much shorter sentence for a completely unrelated crime.

Why did the police ignore the most obvious suspect? There was pressure to close the case -- in a small town, each murder looms large. But the fact is that an ounce of brains and integrity at any point in the investigation and prosecution would have kept Williamson and Fritz from ever coming to trial. There was, quite literally, nothing indicating them except for evidence manufactured by the police -- or by the actual murderer.

Yet the town was convinced these innocent men were guilty. And even after they were exonerated, the stubborn prosecutor refused to admit wrongdoing. He now had DNA evidence that conclusively placed the real killer on the scene -- yet still he was saying to the media that his office still considered Williamson and Fritz suspects in the crime!

In a world where stupidity, pride, venality, ambition, and many other motives can prompt police and states' attorneys to miscarry justice so grossly, it becomes unconscionable for us to use the death penalty.

I say this as one who still thinks the death penalty is perfectly appropriate for some crimes. There are criminals whose acts are so intolerable that no society -- not even prison society -- should be forced to put up with their presence.

The problem is that the justice system is operated by imperfect people, and witnesses and evidence -- real or made up -- can point at the wrong man.

It happens more often than we like to think. The percentages are too unspeakably high. Ever since DNA evidence became available, the number of innocent persons on death row or serving long sentences has been shocking.

I don't know about you, but I think it's fair to extrapolate that percentage backward and realize that we must have executed thousands of innocent people over the history of the United States.

And that's people executed by the state after what seemed to be due process -- I'm not including victims of lynchings and obvious witch hunts.

The death penalty is simply too irrevocable. Life without parole will have to do the job except in the rare cases where the evidence is simply irrefutable -- i.e., the victim is caught in the act. And in those cases, we're usually dealing with mental illness.

The whole theory of imprisonment today is, in my view, faulty. While prison certainly serves as punishment, and people might get a sense of satisfaction at the idea of retribution for a crime, prison does a lousy job of turning criminals into good citizens, and we don't have the stomach for making prison into genuine punishment.

Here's what I think the only effective goal for imprisonment should be: To remove dangerous people from society. We should look at what criminals actually do and shape their imprisonment accordingly.

Most violent criminals who are not insane calm down and become less violence-prone by about the age of fifty. At that point, let 'em go! But while they're still dangerous, they should be imprisoned separately from nonviolent criminals, and should be protected from each other.

Nonviolent criminals should lead closely monitored lives and even be allowed to do whatever work they can be trusted to do without (a) escaping or (b) running cons or scams. Let them earn a living, if they can, and even support their families from inside prison walls or on work release.

Sex offenders are in a separate category. Rapists might calm down with age; child molesters never do. For that reason, child molesters need to be imprisoned so that never, for the rest of their lives, are they ever alone with a child.

The goal of prison should be to remove or reduce the risk to society; once that goal is met, then prison should be as humane as it can be, while keeping prisoners safe from each other.

So while we might think that murderers deserve to die -- and I believe that under certain circumstances they do -- we have done enough if we keep them away from civilian society for life.

Or until we find out they were falsely accused and convicted.

One more thing: I believe very strongly that a prisoner who is convicted of a crime that he is later found not to have committed should not have to sue anybody to get recompense. He should automatically receive compensation at full salary for the years of work he missed; and that salary should be based on the median earnings for similar (but unconvicted) persons over that period of time.

It's the least the government can do, when its officers have perpetrated an injustice -- whether it was inadvertent or, as in the case of Ron Williamson, deliberately and criminally negligent.

And let those who disagree with me answer this: What if you had a child or sibling or parent who was framed up the way Ron Williamson was? Do you think it would be worth letting that loved one die, innocent of any crime, just so that the murderers who are caught and justly convicted can be executed?

I've been in a situation -- merely a traffic offense, but exemplary all the same -- where a policeman made his mind up instantly, didn't listen to me, and cited me for an offense I did not commit, while the liar who rammed my car got off without penalty.

I paid the fine and went my way; but since this has happened to me twice, I do not start my encounters with policemen with the assumption that they will see the truth and act rightly. I start with the assumption that they will find me annoying (most people do) and want to punish me for existing.

I'm just grateful that -- so far -- my survival never depended on being treated fairly in an investigation. (By the way, when I really am at fault, I admit it immediately and do not try to get out of paying the penalty.)

We thought, when DNA evidence first became available, that it would result in more convictions.

Instead, it showed us how dangerous to decency our criminal justice system really is. As long as the death penalty exists, we run the risk of convicting the innocent and never having a chance to try to set things right.

I already believed this before I read The Innocent Man. But reading it gave me an occasion to go on record and, I hope, persuade a least a few people that the benefits of executing murderers do not outweigh the horrible crime of convicting even a few innocent people.

And we already know -- we know -- that more than a few have been unjustly slain by the state. We need no more.

*

This Saturday night, May 12th, at 7:30 pm, the Brigham Young University Wind Symphony will perform at Harrison Auditorium at A&T. The standards of music performance at BYU are very high, and this group, which has toured around the world, has a fine reputation.

Tickets are $5 each, or $20 for a family. I'll be there myself, with family and friends.


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