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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 thinking?)

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 level.

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 explanation.

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. What?

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 won't notice.")

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 fruit salad.

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 money?

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 forever.

Here's what we writers should really be fighting for:

The long copyright that was invented to protect writers should not extend to corporations. Period.

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 renewed.

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 shortage.

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' grandparents' lives.

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 chemicals.

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 marriage.

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?


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