Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 18, 2007
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Stalking Santa, Cookies, Rules, Talk Show
In the News & Record last Sunday, Lewis Beale of Newsday wrote about how
"War films can be hard for Hollywood to peddle." It seems that "of the four flms
released in the past six months dealing with the current world situation -- all
with big-name stars and the full Hollywood studio push -- none earned a profit
in its initial theatrical release."
Stephen Bochco explains the failure of these war films (as of his own TV series
on the war, Over There) by saying, "It's a hugely unpopular war, and there's a
staggering amount of depressing coverage.... I don't know if you can do a
serious drama about this war and locate any angle that would overcome the
negativity about it."
And Dennis Rice of United Artists adds, "Anytime you believe a movie is going
to be the same story as what you get for free on CNN 24 hours a day, people
will ask, 'Why spend $10 to go see that?'"
Beale then lists successful World War II era films like Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca,
and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
But ... wait ... maybe the difference isn't that we all hate this war. Maybe the
difference is that we hate Hollywood's attitude toward the war.
Mrs. Miniver is a powerfully emotional story about love and loss in wartime. It
pulls no punches. But nobody doubts whose side the film is on. It isn't about
blaming the government for getting us into the war. The film accepts that the
war is being fought and then shows real nobility of spirit among those
Need I point out that in Casablanca, it's clear that the Nazis and those who
support them are the embodiment of evil, so that anyone on the other side is at
least partly good?
And in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo there's no problem with a heroic story about
bombing the heavily populated capital city of the nation that sneak-attacked us
at Pearl Harbor and death-marched our soldiers from Bataan.
Here's a thought. What if Hollywood made a movie in which the people fighting
the war thought that the U.S. was the good guys, that fighting Osama's
terrorists in Iraq was way better than fighting them in Manhattan, and that the
men and women who volunteer for service in our military are devoted servants
of our country?
Bochco's and Rice's logic is like that of the researcher who trained a
grasshopper to jump when he yelled "jump." He pulled off one leg; the
grasshopper still jumped on command; he kept pulling off legs until the
grasshopper stopped jumping.
The researcher's conclusion?
Grasshoppers with no legs can't hear.
Wrong conclusion, dimwit!
Remember what happened after Passion of the Christ made half a billion dollars
at the box office? ABC dusted off an abandoned TV movie about Judas Iscariot
-- and nobody watched.
What did Hollywood learn from this? That there's no market for "Bible movies";
Passion was just a fluke.
Can you believe anything so stupid? Passion of the Christ brought millions of
people to the theaters who never went to see normal Hollywood films --
because they've given up on finding movies that tell stories they can believe in
and care about. They trusted Mel Gibson to deliver a believer's movie -- so
ABC's Judas Iscariot project, though, was obviously not for believers in the
divinity of Christ. Christians avoided a film clearly designed to shock and
offend them, and non-Christians didn't care enough to watch.
The audience is way more sophisticated than Hollywood: They want biblical
movies, they just don't want anti-Christian ones. Likewise, they want war
movies, they just don't want anti-American ones.
Here's a complete refutation of the idea that Hollywood's war films keep failing
because the War on Terror is so "hugely unpopular": The Unit.
It may not get the top ratings numbers, but it's a realistic TV series about
Special Ops soldiers who are fighting the War on Terror. The writers make it
clear now and then that they share Hollywood's disapproval of the Bush
administration -- but they treat the soldiers sympathetically and show the bad
guys as murderous jihadists. In short, they're honest.
I believe if you tell the truth about the war and the kind of people who are
fighting it, the audience will come. People can deal with heartbreak, with gritty
reality -- as long as they don't think they're seeing enemy propaganda.
But as long as Leftist Hollywood lies about the war, treating it as a fraud or a
mistake instead of a war being fought by soldiers who believe it is as essential
to our future security as World War II, then they'll find that nobody wants to
see their stupid movies.
As long as Hollywood filmmakers, like the Democrats in Congress, are against
American victory, they'll get treated like Tokyo Rose. As long as they amuse us,
we'll listen; when they propagandize us, they get only our backs.
You want to watch something fun this Christmas? A DVD that didn't come
through the Hollywood system? Check out the DVD Stalking Santa.
Narrated by William Shatner, this is a mockumentary about a "scientist" who is
devoting his life to proving that Santa Claus is real.
Perhaps it's not quite as funny as Christopher Guest's mockumentaries (A
Mighty Wind; Best in Show; Waiting for Guffman), but it's close. Stalking Santa
shares the device in all these movies that the subjects of the supposed
documentary don't realize just how comical and tragical they are.
The great thing is that you can watch this even with true-believer children in
the room (though really young children would be bored out of their minds -- it
is a documentary, after all).
It's not Santa who's being ridiculed here -- it's bad scientists, who relentlessly
search for the desired outcome, despite all evidence to the contrary.
There are also great clips of interviews with kids about what they believe about
But the heart of Stalking Santa is the story of the scientist and his family, and
how his obsession is hurting them all.
Funniest moment: When an "elf" chews out the scientist for bothering him.
Go to www.stalkingsanta.com, and you can see the trailer -- or click on a
button that takes you to WalMart.com, where you can buy the DVD. It's fifteen
bucks -- if three people watch the one DVD, you just saved money over going
to the theater.
In my relentless search for quality online food, I have found a real gem:
"Gourmet Center" at Biscoff.com. (http://www.biscoff.com/gourmet/shop)
If you've been flying Delta, you probably already know about Biscoff cookies,
those graham-cracker-like treats they pass down the aisles to try to get you to
forget they didn't give you a meal.
What you might not know is that these cookies originated in Belgium under the
name "Lotus Speculoos." "Biscoff" was the name that San Francisco-based
airline supplier Gourmet Center made up for American consumption.
And they have a lot more on the website than Biscoff cookies.
For instance, they have genuine madeleines, those cake-like cookies (or cooky-like cakes?) that have addicted generations of tourists in France. My wife, a
partisan of madeleines, declares them every bit as good as any she had in
France -- and better than most.
I also like their parisette waffle cookies, while their sea salt caramels are
I make caramels, so I'm especially fussy about those I buy commercially. Till
now, my favorites have been Fannie May's (http://www.fanniemay.com). And
at first tasting, the Gourmet Center caramels were a bit of a shock. They really
are coated -- washed, really -- in sea salt, so that you get a mix of intense
sweetness with a salty backtaste.
When I lived in Brazil, people there had a kind of horror of mixing "doce com
salgado" -- "sweet with salt." For instance, they were appalled that we served
avocados in salted green salads -- to them, avocados were fruits to be eaten
Well, these caramels would probably induce fainting in Brazil! But maybe not
-- because the mix quickly grew on me and now I kind of miss the saltiness
when I eat Fannie Mays.
Go to Biscoff.com and see what they've got. From what I've tasted so far, it'll be
even better than it looks.
Best of all, everything is individually wrapped and stays edible for a while. So
you can order a lot of your favorite item and not waste any.
Are you a fiction writer -- or buying a gift for one? Go to the bookstore and
look at Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing.
At first glance, this can seem to be the most egregiously inflated book in
history. Its 96 pages are so thick they're practically cardboard, like a toddler's
book; most pages have only a few lines of text, and many have no text at all.
In fact, this column is much longer than the whole text of Leonard's book on
But let me assure you, as a writer myself, that Leonard's ten rules are true,
and by setting them off in this way they get the emphasis they deserve. Each
sentence demands that you think about it, and I promise, if you follow these
rules you will actually do better work.
So yes, it's a ripoff, if you judge books by the number of words per dollar you
spend on it. But if you judge books by the value of their contents, this book is
a bargain at a list price of $14.95.
And those cardboard pages will last longer than your word processor.
Last week my good friend Rusty Humphries did something astonishingly
generous. Knowing that I'd long wished I could try my hand at a talk show, he
graciously allowed me to guest-host his nationally-syndicated show.
Rusty's show is one of the top ten in America, and he didn't give me a bad time
slot -- a weekend, for instance. He gave me his own precious 6-to-9 (Pacific; in
the east it's 9-to-midnight on most stations, including XM radio at station 166)
on a Tuesday night.
Of course, he had the approval of the owner of Talk Radio Network, Mark
Masters. They were willing to bet that I wouldn't drive away so many
advertisers that the network would go bankrupt.
So I flew to Medford, Oregon, and plunged into the preparation for the show.
Masters himself spent a couple of hours teaching me the principles of hosting a
show. I have no intention of telling you what they are -- let him write that
book! But I will tell you that they make complete sense and, when you try
them on the air, they totally work.
Meanwhile, Rusty showed me the way he organizes his show and let me sit in
with him on Monday night to watch how he did it.
I watched him talk back to sound clips, carry on devil's-advocate dialogue with
himself, react to callers, and go off on marvelous rants, and I alternated
between "I can do this" and "Please don't make me try."
But the next day I did try. I watched the news, read some papers, got some of
my own ideas.
And when I got to the studio, Rusty's team of producers had treated me the
way they treat him. Nothing was held back for Rusty to use the next day -- I
got their best stuff.
Mike Kinney, the technical producer, headed up the effort to get me great
sound clips. I did some prerecording of my own, and they helped me get
familiar with the clips I'd be working with -- stuff I'd never have found on my
own. But that's their job -- to listen to the news on every network and record
the bits that might be usable on the radio show.
For instance, I was able to have a running dialogue with Barack Obama,
cutting in and out of a speech he gave. Nothing was rehearsed, and very little
was written out -- rather the way I watched Rusty work.
The difference is that Rusty Humphries knows what he's doing. He ought to --
even though he's more than ten years younger than me, he's been doing radio
One piece of advice I got misled me a bit. I was told to talk as if I were
speaking to just one person.
If I'd thought about it, I'd have realized that Rusty himself doesn't actually do
that. Oh, his style is intimate -- but if you were in the room with him, just you,
when he stands on his feet and does a hot and biting rant at his virtual pulpit,
you might wish for someone else to help absorb the intensity of the
Anyway, when I started my three-hour guest-hosting stint, I talked as if to one
person -- like dinner conversation. Quiet. Low-key.
At the second commercial break, Rusty comes into the studio and, very kindly,
says, "Did you think you were on NPR? Come on, liven it up!"
I had done a presentation that morning at the school Rusty's and Mark's kids
go to, and Rusty said, "Try to have the energy you had when you were talking
to the kids."
"But that wasn't one person," I said. "That was an audience."
"OK," said Rusty. "Forget 'one person.' Talk to that audience!"
I did, and the next segment went better. And the segment after that even
better -- and the first hour was done.
In the second hour, I went to town. I did a bit about how poor Hillary Clinton
didn't know her staff was giving her planted questions; the gag was that they
were treating her like a fragile little child, so I imitated her speaking like a little
kid. (It's the voice my long-suffering children would recognized instantly as
It was funny. I knew it was funny. I knew the show was clicking then. And
when I launched into my dialogue with Obama's recorded speech, I knew I was
doing it right.
Not as good as Rusty, but good enough that I wouldn't be totally embarrassed
by my performance.
Meanwhile, I had Mike Kinney through the glass from me, occasionally
commenting back and often coming up with great sound clips on the spur of
For instance, when I began one segment by saying, "This is Orson Scott Card,
petting Rusty Humphries' cat," Mike surprised me with a great "meow" clip.
Meanwhile, vice-president of operations Brad Silvers popped in from time to
time, making suggestions for ways that I could spin this or that story. In this
situation I had no vanity about authorship -- I was gonna take any idea that
made sense and use it. And Brad is good -- every suggestion he made was
golden on the air.
I could see he and Mike were both having fun. And so was I.
But here's the thing: I was also terrified, from beginning to end.
I haven't been afraid in front of an audience for years. In fact, standing in front
of fifty or a hundred or a thousand people is my natural habitat.
But sitting in front of a microphone and talking to an invisible crowd -- a very
Besides, there's stuff I never have to think about on stage -- commercial
breaks, the need to keep identifying the show, "teasing" the upcoming topics. I
kept having moment of mini-panic as I talked my way into and out of a
segment, and for one horrifying moment (in the first hour) I had that panic of
thinking I had nothing to say. I was a breath away from dead air ... but I
managed to fill until my mind returned.
I never did stand up the way Rusty does. Not because it doesn't work -- in
fact, the audience can tell what your body language is. Standing up when
you're doing a riff works just the way it does for a jazz musician. The reason I
didn't try it is because my legs were trembling so hard (for three solid hours)
that if I stood up I was afraid I'd fall over.
At the end, I was exhausted and exhilarated. I couldn't believe that Rusty -- or
anyone! -- could do this for three hours a day, six days a week. (When I said
this to Rusty, he answered: "I used to do two shows a day -- six hours, not
But I also understood absolutely why it was such a great career for those well-suited to it. It's thrilling. Like a roller-coaster, without the vomiting.
In one sense there's lots of support -- I had the producers, I had some training,
I had callers, I even had Rusty popping in during some breaks to encourage me
and give me suggestions.
But in another sense, I was working without a net. If I really froze up and
failed, sure, they could pop instantly to a "best of Rusty" show, but my
humiliation would be complete. I'd be dead as far as talk radio was concerned.
I didn't freeze.
And even though it took me about fifteen minutes to stop the microscopic
trembling of my adrenalin rush, I was hooked. I want to do it again.
But even if that never happens (after all, TRN may look at the numbers and
report that when this Democrat went on for Republican Rusty Humphries, the
audience share dropped by half!), I'll never forget this one experience.
Thanks, Rusty. Thanks, Mark. Thanks Brad and Mike and all the others who
helped my show to fly without my being able to get your names implanted in
my aging brain. You made this old man's year!
After the talk show gig in Medford, my wife and I went to Rexburg, Idaho,
where I was a Forum speaker at BYU's Idaho campus. I knew from previous
visits there that Rexburg is a restaurant wasteland; we were prepared to eat at
Applebee's just to make sure the quality of what we ate didn't fall below a
To our surprise, the friends we ate with the first night there took us to
Pineapple Grill, which had decent food. (Nothing like the great food we had
every night in Medford, but you have to remember that eastern Idaho is where
they grow potatoes, not where they cook them.)
Then another friend took us to the nearby town of St. Anthony, where we ate at
a diner called "Chizz's."
This was a place I would never have walked into on purpose. It looked from the
outside like a dive; inside, that impression was only made firmer. There were
no tables, only a bar shaped like three sides of a square. When it's crowded,
people stand against the wall waiting for somebody to get up -- I guess that's
an incentive to eat fast.
Here's the thing: The menu's weird mix of oriental and American cooking
turned out to be superb. I liked everything they served me.
I even liked the people! The waitress's banter with the customers made it clear
that this was a place the locals kept coming back to. The customers all chatted
with each other. Ordinarily I would loathe that. But in that place, at that time,
it was wonderful.
OK, so it's not worth a special trip on a tiny plane, and certainly not worth a
three thousand mile drive.
But it's really close to Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Tetons -- so you
might be within a hundred miles of St. Anthony someday, and then it is worth
Just in case you're interested, if somebody on your Christmas list wants a
book by Orson Scott Card, here's a pretty good shopping list, from most
expensive to least:
First of all, most of my books are now out on audio, and I promise you, Stefan
Rudnicki's productions of my books are brilliant. This is the best way to
experience any of my fiction -- read aloud by these extraordinary performers.
CDs aren't cheap, and you probably would have to order them online, since
only a few titles are likely to be stocked in any store -- but if you're buying for
a diehard devotee of my fiction who listens to books in the car or at home, give
it some thought.
Meanwhile, my collaboration with Aaron Johnston, Invasive Procedures, came
out only a month or so ago and is still in the stores. It's a near-future thriller
in which some people get organ transplants they didn't need, and then find
that the donor's personality is taking over their bodies.
My newest book about Ender Wiggin, A War of Gifts, is about one-fourth the
length of a regular novel (but way longer than Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules for
Writers). I'm proud of this book. It may be a Christmas book and it may be
short but that doesn't mean I took it lightly. It's as gritty and real -- and, I
hope, as funny and as moving -- as any of my Ender novels.
Then, as of 27 November, the paperback of my novel from last Christmas,
Empire, will be in the bookstores. This account of an all-too-possible civil war
between blue-state and red-state Americans was controversial -- but only
because of bigots who "reviewed" it without reading it. The main characters are
soldiers who are loyal and patriotic -- an obvious choice, I thought -- but it
meant that some Leftists tagged it as "right-wing propaganda." Far from it --
the point of the story is that hate-filled propaganda can lead to war! Mostly,
though, it's a nonstop adventure starting with the assassination of the
President and continuing with the "secession" of New York City.
And finally, for the cheapest possible OSC gift, you might want to give a reader
one or more issues of my quarterly online fiction magazine, The InterGalactic
Medicine Show. Located at www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com, each issue
costs only $2.50, for which you get illustrated stories by some of the best
writers of fantasy and science fiction working today. There are also reviews
and commentary by terrific writers ... and there's a story by me, set in the
Ender universe, in every issue.
I don't think you're going to find as good a Christmas gift for less than $2.50
unless you make it yourself. Even if you skip my story and just read the