Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 6, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
National Treasure, Writers' Strike, Blue Skies
January is usually about the worst month of the year for movies. That's why
nobody brings out their strongest films in the first few weeks of the year. But
the hangover movies -- the ones still going strong from the holiday season --
are still raking in millions.
But January 4-5 was the first weekend in a long time that we were able to go to
a movie as a family. Our schedule during the Christmas season was just too
crazy to allow any time for movie-going.
Our choice was unanimous. The film we were most anxious to see was
National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
That was partly because of what else was playing, of course. Despite our
admiration for Will Smith, we just don't think of I Am Legend as a family film.
Our daughter is too old for Alvin and the Chipmunks -- to our relief -- and
Sweeney Todd? I just listened to the CD again; I didn't have to watch Johnny
Depp in semi-human weirdo mode. I had my fill of that with Willy Wonka.
But National Treasure -- is there a more unlikely hero than Nicolas Cage? Yet
in a way he's the hero we want. Vaguely funny-looking -- the way Jimmy
Stewart and Clark Gable had an endearing goofiness about them. (Yes, Clark
Gable; look at him! Goofy.)
Cage has something else, too. There's an intensity in his eyes that looks like
he's always just one thought away from complete panic. When he's doing
ridiculously brave things on screen, we can see that he knows that what he's
doing is insane and he can't believe he's doing it.
Cage was in fine form in Book of Secrets -- except for the horrible wig he was
wearing. Please, Mr. Cage -- just let the hairline go. The wig is looking worse
and worse. Bruce Willis has let us see his male-pattern baldness and his
career did not end. We don't love you for your beauty anyway! Just relax and
let your head be real.
And if by chance that really is your hair, then fire your hairdresser, because it
looks like a rug.
What makes the movie work, however, is not just Cage. Justin Bartha as
longsuffering sidekick Riley Poole is absolutely brilliant -- he has a light touch
so it never sounds like he's going for a laugh. He's just griping.
(I knew a moment's hope when I saw he was executive producing a new movie
called Death of a Ladies' Man. Would he also star in it? The premise sounds
terrific, but so far at least Bartha is not on the cast list. What are they
Diane Kruger, as Abigail Chase, is also just about perfect. Unlike Bartha,
she's worked a lot since the first National Treasure movie -- but never in a
starring role in a really big movie.
(She has second billing in the upcoming Mr. Nobody, a time travel movie with a
big enough budget that the studio seems to believe in it. But with Rhys Ifans
as the top-billed star (the wacky roommate in Notting Hill), it doesn't look like
it's going to do anybody's career much good. Hope I'm wrong. I'm ready for a
great time travel movie.)
It's terrific to see Jon Voight and Helen Mirren arguing, and Ed Harris makes a
terrific villain. Bruce Greenwood gives us a view of Kennedy as president, if
only Kennedy had been a grownup, and Ty Burrell is brilliant as the
presidential aide who has the hots for Diane Kruger.
But what's Harvey Keitel doing in such a tiny part? Can't anyone find anything
better for this extraordinary actor to do? I'm glad he got the payday, anyway.
Everybody's got to live, even if you sometimes have to work below your talent
The script is funny and inventive, but also deeply dumb. Not just dumb about
history and science, but dumb about itself. For instance, the whole brouhaha
about Cage kidnapping the president just goes away when the President gives a
quick, easy explanation that absolves him.
But the President could have given that explanation right from the start, and
the plot would not have changed one whit, because nothing came of Cage being
pursued by the police and FBI. And having once given the kidnapping story to
the press, it would not just go away because the President later gave a new
There were other incoherencies. Helen Mirren can instantly read Olmec (a
joke, of course); then, when she gets to the hidden city, she's so excited
because with all these inscriptions, now we can finally learn to read Olmec.
The jumpiness has all the earmarks of a script created by committee and then
edited with little thought of coherency. But in this kind of movie, there's
always just a little bit of contempt for the audience. ("Oh, who cares, they
But we do notice. We're just forgiving because we're having so much fun. We
wouldn't enjoy it less if the filmmakers took the trouble to make the movie
smarter. We might even leave the theaters saying, not "That was fun," but
"That was excellent."
News about the writers' strike. Let me start off by saying that I'm a member
of the union and a believer in the cause.
Just like publishers, the studios always try to maximize their profits by cutting
out the writers. Even though everyone in Hollywood knows -- and repeatedly
says -- that you can't do anything on a movie till you have a good script, they
continue to treat writers as if they were cockroaches that somehow got into the
Writers have long suffered from the constant irritation of directors who did not
write the script being given the proprietary credit: "A film by ..." Unless the
director also gets the sole writing credit, this statement is always a lie -- but
the studios seem to believe the French nonsense that the director is the author
of the film. The proof that this is never true is a list of all the very bad films
made by "great" directors who thought they could make up for the deficiencies
in a bad script.
But the writers aren't striking about the insult of the proprietary credit. We're
striking over the deep injury of being cut out of our fair share of DVD and
internet sales. The studios think that our share is nothing. Their attitude is,
"You got paid the first time around, what's your beef?"
Yes, the writer got paid. Let's say he got $300,000 for writing the script. In
1994. Now the movie is making hundreds of thousands in DVD sales, and the
writer hasn't sold a script since 1998. Why should the studio continue to
make money from his work, while the writer gets nothing? Isn't it still his
script, his story, the words and actions he thought up, that are making all that
Writers get a lot of money per script. But before you dismiss us as a bunch of
overpaid babies, please remember that we never know where the next check is
coming from. Sell a script for $300,000 -- and the film might never get made.
You might not sell another script for ten years. Suddenly that wasn't quite as
much money as it sounded like at first.
The problem comes back to copyright. The studios require writers to sign
work-for-hire contracts, which means that even though the writer invented
everything in the script, the studio becomes the legal "author" of the movie.
I think this situation is immoral -- though I've signed those contracts because
there's no other choice. It's especially galling because the studios are now
fighting to make copyright perpetual, so they can keep making money from
long-dead writers' work -- while paying nothing for the privilege.
Studios create nothing. They just decide which scripts to make and pay for
them. This is all well and good in a capitalist society -- but the copyright law
is not a corporate welfare plan, it's a device to encourage creativity. The
studios don't have any creativity -- the writers do. So the law should be
shaped to encourage writers, not the studios that steal from them.
Society benefits from having copyright laws that make it profitable to create
literary works like books and scripts; but society also benefits when those
copyrights are only temporary. At some point, they should all enter the public
domain so anyone can duplicate them -- that encourages literature to remain
alive long after it was created.
In 1978, the copyright law was amended to make sure that writers did not
outlive their copyrights and watch their works enter public domain while they
still were trying to live on the income from them.
But the primary beneficiary of the new extension of the copyright law was the
studios. They cut the writer out from the start, and then started treating
intellectual properties as if they were real estate -- created by God and theirs
Here's what we writers should really be fighting for:
The long copyright that was invented to protect writers should not extend to
If a literary work's copyright belongs to the human being who created it, then
the copyright should last for the writer's lifetime plus ten years -- twenty if he
has minor children at the time of his death.
But if the copyright is owned by a corporation or company, then the copyright
should last fifteen years. Period. Done. After that, anybody can duplicate the
copyrighted work without paying anything.
Most films make almost all their income in the first fifteen years. The studios
have made back their investment by then or they never will. So if they insist
on owning the copyright and treating the writer who created the thing as if he
were a roach in the salad, they can do it -- for a decade and a half.
If they want to make money from it longer, though, they will not make the
writer sign a work-for-hire contract. On the contrary, they will insist that he
continue to own the copyright and only license the studio to make a movie from
it. It should be illegal for such a license to be perpetual -- it would have to be
If the studio decides not to renew the license by paying the writer again, then
the script reverts to the writer -- he can get the film remade if he can, and if
anyone else wants to reissue the original movie, they not only have to pay the
studio for their work on it, they have to buy the script rights from the writer.
With such a change in the copyright law, you wouldn't see any more writers'
strikes. We would be owners, not flunkies begging at the rich studios' tables.
Hollywood would finally have to act on the truth that everyone already knows
but pretends not to know: Each good script is the product of one writer or
writing team; all the other parts are interchangeable.
The money can come from anywhere; any director and cinematographer can
film it; any actors can play the parts. Some will do better than others, of
course, and some are more commercial, but only the script is irreplaceable.
Meanwhile, though, we have a strike.
Television is feeling the pain first, and we who watch TV are going to be faced
with weeks, maybe months, of 180 channels "and nothing on."
There are signs of hope: A couple of individual production companies have
broken ranks and signed fair deals with the Writers Guild. United Artists,
owned by Paula Wagner and Tom Cruise, just signed the deal. Worldwide
Pants, David Letterman's production company, had already signed the deal --
the first to do so.
What they agreed to was, in the WGA's words, "all the proposals we were
preparing to make when the big media conglomerates left the bargaining table
a month ago. Those proposals include appropriate minimums and residuals for
new media (whether streamed or downloaded, as well as original made-for
content), along with basic cable and pay-TV increases, feature animation and
reality TV coverage, union solidarity language, and important enforcement,
auditing, and arbitration considerations."
Meanwhile, poor Jay Leno is being tortured: his contract with NBC required
him to return to work on The Tonight Show, but his membership in the WGA
made it mandatory that he write nothing.
Which is really weird. He can stand up in front of the audience and talk, but
he can't write anything down. So if he thinks of some good things to talk about
and just wings it, improvising his monologue, he's fine. But the moment he
writes down any notes or even a list of gags so he can remember the flow of his
monologue, he's in breach of union rules.
This is simply insane. The union needs to lighten up and let the man live. He
has a contract as a performer that he must fulfil, and at his age (the same as
mine) he has an imperfect memory and probably needs to be able to jot down
notes just to remember where to find his pants. I know I do. As long as he's
not writing and rewriting his monologue in advance, which would clearly be a
breach, give him a little slack. He's on our side.
It's hurting me, too. For instance, I have a whole new angle of attack on the
script to my movie project Ender's Game. It's terrific -- it's going to make this
movie absolutely work. But I can't show it to anybody. Even though I'm the
author of the original book, as a union member I can't write a new adaptation
and offer it for sale.
In fact, even if I weren't a union member, I couldn't do it -- because the
moment the strike ended, I would be listed as having been "scab labor" for
having shown my spec script around during the strike, and the union would
not let me join. And, once the strike is settled, Hollywood will be a union shop
again -- no work unless you're a member.
Let's face it: strikes hurt everybody. But when the owners decide to treat
workers like dirt and take what they produce and use it without fair
compensation, what other choice do the workers have? Unions can become too
powerful -- but without unions, the profit motive will inevitably drive
employers to treat their employees unfairly.
There are no exceptions to this, despite the myths believed by free market
fundamentalists. You have to create an artificial labor shortage in order to
drive the price of labor back up -- and that's what a strike is, an artificial labor
Meanwhile, there are a few TV series that already had many episodes in the
can before the strike. And, technically, reality shows can go ahead because
their writers were not covered at all under the old agreement.
The trouble is that the union's strike rules will torment those writers as surely
as they're tormenting poor Jay Leno. Because the strike is partly over the
issue of including reality-show writers in the union, the union has declared
that any writer in a field that the WGA is trying to include in the new contract
will be permanently banned from union membership. So reality shows writers
are covered and not covered at the same time.
Just a word of warning, Ryan Seacrest: If you ever want to join the writers'
union, don't take down any notes about what you're going to say on camera.
Lynne Cheney's memoire Blue Skies, No Fences is a genial and well-written
book. I listened to it on CD, read by the author, and enjoyed it enough to keep
listening to the end, which says a lot, since I'm an impatient guy.
Unfortunately, Cheney is a decent but not excellent reader of her own book.
You can understand every word she says, but she always sounds like she's
reading. She often misses the intonations she should use to bring the thing to
life. So the book is curiously dead. I know any number of professional readers
who would have made the listening experience much more vivid.
The most important effect of the book, however, is time travel. While listening,
I was taken back to the time of my own childhood -- I'm only a decade younger
than Cheney -- and it also reminded me of stories from my parents'
I don't know how interesting the book would be to younger readers. I suppose
it depends on how interested they are in the past -- some are, some aren't.
But for my generation, the book is a trip home to another time. A far more
innocent time. An era when most kids didn't even think about having sex
because nobody they liked or admired was doing it. A time when drugs were
simply unavailable to most teenagers unless they actively looked for them.
It was an era when most children were remarkably safe, and when babies were
almost always born into two-parent households with little prospect of their
lives being torn apart by divorce.
Then the rules changed and it's hard to think of any good results that have
come from the new "freedom." In the 1950s, the social rules surrounding sex
and marriage might have felt repressive to impatient children, but contrary to
myth, nobody ever died from not having sex.
And the strict social sanctions against divorce might have kept many unhappy
people together -- but there's no evidence that easy divorce has made adults,
on average, any happier, while their children have hated the results.
The rules kept most children from premature marriage and family
responsibility, and they guaranteed that babies were born into the world with
reasonably good prospects of a decent upbringing.
Of course, idiots always reply, "You liked the fifties? You must want a return
to segregation!" As if the two were connected in any way.
We performed a vast social experiment on ourselves in the 1960s and 1970s,
and any impartial observer would have to regard the results as disastrous. So
can't we please stop now?
People say "there's no going back," but of course there is. It's no harder to
impose new rules than it was to destroy the old ones.
If you have any doubt, look at how effectively the Leftaliban has imposed a
whole new set of stringent rules, most of which make as much sense as the
Taliban's beard rule -- and yet we all obey them for fear of social sanctions.
If we all treated parents with contempt for letting their under-high-school-age
children date, for instance, the practice would be extinguished in a year. Far
more powerful than any law is the disapproval of your peers. In fact, it's partly
the constant pounding message from the media and the establishment that
kids are practically expected to have sex and live together before marriage that
keeps these counterproductive practices alive.
The scientific data is in: living together before marriage, sexual activity outside
marriage, single-parent child-rearing, easy groundless divorce -- none of them
provide any benefits to the individual or society, while they cause great harm.
If these practices were chemicals in food or paint or new medicines, they would
instantly be banned -- the evidence is far clearer than is ever required to ban
But because they are social practices with strong advocacy groups, we are
constantly told, for instance, that "you can't stop children from having sex."
What a laugh -- of course you can. And in the 1950s, we did a pretty darn
good job of it, in the main.
That's part of the message of Lynne Cheney's memoire, and it's all the more
powerful because she barely talks about it. She doesn't talk about it because,
in the 1950s, most kids didn't even feel it. It's just the way things were. You
didn't remember not having sex because nobody that you knew or respected
was having any. Kids thought about it a lot, because they were human, but it
was always with the idea of channeling sexual desire toward a permanent
Isn't it amazing how we test drugs for years before releasing them to the public
-- but we make vast social changes with hideous consequences based on
wacko, untested theories, and then act as if, despite the bad results, we can
never change back. It's like elections won by Muslim fundamentalists -- one
man, one vote, one time.
So many lies, and we all persist in acting as if they were true, even when we
know from our own experience that there was and is a better way. Are we
really this dumb?