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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 5, 2007

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


Simpsons Movie, Spare Change, Roma

Back in the previous century, I was a fan of the "Hell" books -- collections of comic strips by Matt Groening entitled Life Is Hell and School Is Hell, featuring an array of long-eared bunnies whose approach to life included both hostility and despair.

I was delighted when I found out that Groening was developing a television series based around characters that first appeared on the short-lived Tracey Ullman Show.

But when I watched the first episodes of The Simpsons in 1987 I quickly realized that it was not really aimed at me. It was mocking family life from the perspective of the children, not the adults: just another Dad-is-stupid sitcom, only Dad was even more appallingly stupid than usual.

I guess The Cosby Show, where Dad was given a spark of intelligence and decency, had spoiled me. You don't have to indulge in habitual male-bashing to be funny, and yet The Simpsons chose to rely on it; so it was not a show in which I needed to invest any more time.

Oddly enough, the show that got all the attention for being anti-family came out the same year as The Simpsons -- Married With Children in 1987. And I loved that show.

Married With Children was from the point of view of the parents, and particularly the father. It made fun of Al Bundy because it made fun of everybody; however, we saw him, not as the cause of the family's distress, but as a victim of it, and perhaps the prime victim.

More to the point, Married With Children absolutely knew what a good family was, and took care to make the Bundys the opposite of that in every conceivable way. It was funny because we knew what good families looked like, and this wasn't one -- and not because (like the Simpsons, to me at least) the show didn't believe there was such a thing as a good family.

Twenty years later, The Simpsons is still going strong -- and people actually seem to love the family, heaven knows how. While the writing on Married With Children eventually came to focus on Al Bundy, turning him eventually into an icon of stupid masculinity -- not my kind of show after all. They had five good years; they lasted five years after that.

The American people had voted -- either that or The Simpsons had hung on to a better writing staff than Married With Children was able to keep.

Last week my thirteen-year-old and I had time to go see a movie while my wife was busy with something else. She had never watched a whole episode of The Simpsons and I hadn't done so for longer than she had been alive.

There was only one reason we decided to go to see The Simpsons Movie, and that was the promo in which we saw Marge (the wife) wonder aloud about why there were pig footprints on the ceiling, whereupon she sees Homer (the husband) holding the pig over his head, walking it along the ceiling, while singing, "Spider-Pig, Spider-Pig, does whatever a Spider-Pig does!"

The comic timing was so exquisite (film editors are the make-or-break talent in comedies, and nobody outside the industry seems to realize it) that we broke up laughing and knew we would go see the movie.

To our delight, the Spider-Pig sequence was far from being the funniest part of the movie. We laughed almost continuously. Even when we were part of the group being skewered.

(I even laughed when they showed a global-warming-skeptic thug beating up an environmentalist -- the opposite of what actually happens in the real world, where you don't get tenure or your job is threatened or you get no grants if you dare to speak against the very bad science involved in the global warming movement. They were offensively wrong-headed -- but funny.)

The writers of The Simpsons Movie get many of their laughs from irreverence or shock. (If you haven't seen the movie, but might, skip the rest of this paragraph.) For instance, there's the sequence where Homer dares his son Bart to skateboard naked to a fast-food joint. Bart takes the dare, but as he skateboards along, his genitals are constantly concealed behind a seemingly infinite array of strategically placed flora, fauna, and signage. Until he comes to a tall hedge where the only part of him you can see is his crudely drawn childish pizzle. Offensive? Yes. Funny? I almost cried with laughter.

This movie is not for everybody. In fact, I could make a case for its success being a symptom of the American people's loss of a sense of decency, proportion, respect, fairness, and respectability.

At the same time, it's very well done and we both enjoyed it. My 13-year-old did not come away resolved to Live Like Bart -- quite the opposite. But she was able to enjoy his antics.

The characters are, in other words, clowns. This is not a sympathetic comedy like You've Got Mail or even Surf's Up; you actually agree with the characters who loathe Homer Simpson and want to exile him if they can't actually lynch him.

The characters exist to be ridiculed. They do not invite sympathy, with the possible exception of the long-suffering females; and yet we recognize something of ourselves, or of people we know, in them.

I'm still not a fan of the weekly series. But for two funny hours in a theater, following which I won't see these characters again for years, the Simpsons are well worth the time and money spent on this movie.

*

Robert B. Parker's new novel, Spare Change, features his female sleuth, Sunny Randall.

I've seen few mystery writers who successfully introduced multiple sleuths who live in the same world and whose stories overlapped with each other. But Parker has brought it off. Sleuth Sunny Randall is seeing Sleuth Spenser's main squeeze, Susan Silverman, as her shrink, and she just ended a frustrating affair with Jesse Stone, the third sleuth.

As the heroes pop up in each other's books, it only enriches them all and makes clear the differences among them. The message is: There are many different ways to be good at the same job.

In some ways, you could say this is "just another Parker novel." It's another paean to psychotherapy, with angst-filled characters who solve mysteries in the outside world, save lives and take them as appropriate, and yet who still agonize over matters of love.

In fact, I actually disagree with Parker's core assumption, that lasting love is something that you discover rather than create. I also disagree most strongly with the "if it makes you happy it must be right" premise, which is the source of a considerable portion of the misery in the world today.

But I also don't mind that I disagree with Parker's worldview. Because even though his writing is spare to the point of miserliness -- as if Parker were being charged instead of paid by the word -- nobody constructs a scene with more flair or dialogue with more wit than he does.

Unusually for Parker, the villain in this piece is a serial killer. We know very quickly who the bad guy is; the only mystery is why, and the only suspense is whether Sunny Randall will be killed. But we kind of know she won't, and when the "why" of the serial killings is explained, it doesn't really explain much.

And yet it is a completely satisfying experience to read the book. It make me wonder if this writer can do no wrong. I hate writers like that, but only because of abject envy.

Parker's books get briefer and briefer, and so the paper gets thicker and the text gets more spread out among the pages so the editors can pretend it's a full-length novel. But brief as the actual page count is, it feels like a full mystery novel.

Maybe the problem is that the other guys write long.

*

Stephen Saylor has devoted his writing career to taking modern readers into the life of ancient Rome, during the crucial era when the Republic was dying.

His Roma Sub Rosa mystery series now spans more than a dozen books and stories. Starting with tales of Gordianus the Finder, Saylor has created novels that are structured around mysteries -- and Gordianus is certainly a sleuth -- but they actually function as superb historical novels.

Historicals were once one of the strongest genres of fiction, but have faded in recent decades. Perhaps one reason for the fade is that so many historicals were really Christian historicals -- Taylor Caldwell's Dear and Glorious Physician and Lloyd Douglas's The Robe being more modern followers in the footsteps of Lew Wallace's epic Ben-Hur.

That tradition is nearly dead, at least for the large popular audience. But what can explain the fading of brilliant non-Christian historicals like Mary Renault's unforgettable novels of ancient Greece? (If you haven't read The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, along with her many other books, then your life is the poorer.)

So Saylor was definitely swimming upstream when he launched his series of historical novels about Rome. It was, therefore, an inspired move to make them mysteries at a time when the mystery genre was burgeoning and becoming far more inclusive.

There are others who have written historical mysteries set in Rome, but all I have read have been thinly disguised romance novels, of which I soon wearied. Saylor takes on the tough issues. Much of Roman history is, in fact, gossip about a few powerful families, so the stories are inevitably personal and convoluted, the way only family stories can be. But they also deal with crucial political struggles and movements.

Apparently, however, Saylor has long been frustrated by the fact that stories linked to Gordianus the Finder and his family can only take place in a limited period of time, while Roman history is fascinating from the beginning.

Saylor is not one of those who dismiss ancient, oral-sourced history as "legends" -- he sees those legends as having roots in real events (as archaeology and anthropology repeatedly bear out).

So he decided it was time for a full-fledged historical novel, Roma, that would take on the whole epic story of the place.

And to do it, he learned a bit from James Michener.

I remember when I first read The Source. The frame of the novel was a modern archaeological expedition that uncovered a series of artifacts at Tell Makor (good heavens, I still remember the name; unless, of course, I remembered it wrong; let's gamble and not look it up). The book then proceeded to offer a short story or novelet that explained at least one of the artifacts.

Thus the whole history of the place for thousands of years could be combined in a single overarching story.

Saylor's continuity device is an amulet created in worship of Rome's original god, who was later supplanted by so many others, from so many different cultures, that the original was forgotten -- except by one family that preserved the amulet through the ages.

The danger of such a book -- one to which Michener, in many of his novels, fell victim -- is that the book is only as good as the weakest of the connected stories.

Fortunately, even the weakest of the stories in Saylor's Roma is still entertaining.

The paradox of the novel is that its ambition is ultimately self-defeating. Roman history is simply too large to tell it all; even as much of it as Saylor tells is hurt by the fact that we rarely have time to really get to know the characters the way we do in the mystery novels.

The mysteries take on a very narrow slice of Roman history, but explore it at satisfying, novelistic depth; Roma takes a whole bunch of narrow slices and explores each at the much quicker and, alas, less satisfying depth of the short story.

Still, at the end of the novel, while you have certainly not been brought to the present day a la Michener, and many great stories and characters have been mostly ignored (or left out entirely), you have a very good picture of the life and growth of the great city-state, not as histories are usually written, at the political and military level, but rather at a very personal level of members of a family whose fortunes fall and never quite rise again.

*

At San Diego ComiCon a few weeks ago I picked up a book called The Best of Mr. Oblivious, by cartoonist Mark Gonyea.

In a sense, as Gonyea himself points out, all the Mr. Oblivious comics have exactly the same premise: Mr. Oblivious is simply unaware of the world around him.

But each comic shows a different absurd situation, too many of which reflect things I've done or have seen others do in the real world.

As with all comic strips, Mr. Oblivious has some winners and some losers. I don't think it would necessarily work as a daily strip, either. On his website there are only 108 strips. Not what the world of daily strip syndication requires.

Rather these strips would be best presented on the fronts or backs of T-shirts. Like some of our recent favorites ("National Sarcasm Society: Like We Need Your Support"; "Here I am: What are your other two wishes?" "Embarrassing My Children: Just Another Service I Offer"), the best Mr. Oblivious cartoons are meant to be asserted in a public space.

Gonyea needs to be offering his art on objects sold on CafePress.com or Zazzle.com.

Meanwhile, though, check out http://www.mroblivious.com, where you can see the whole range of comics and decide for yourself what's funny and what isn't.

*

For those who first tried the new bakery Panizzo (at Muirs Chapel and Market) following my announcement of their grand opening a month ago, I'm afraid that only after I wrote my announcement -- and it was too late to change the opening date -- did they discover that there was something disastrously wrong with their computer software, causing a lot of mixed-up, late, or lost orders.

But the computer problems have been ironed out, the system moves smoothly, they have the great breads I promised, and the sandwiches are coming out quickly and correctly. If you didn't have a perfect experience the first time you stopped by, I urge you to try again.


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