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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 22, 2008

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


Judges, Potato Chips And Best Of Lists

I'm so disgusted with the judges on So You Think You Can Dance.

I don't take back any of the good things I said about them before -- they're still the most thoughtful and helpful judges on any of the current talent shows.

But everybody has a bad day. And last week was a terrible one.

Eliminating Susie Garcia made sense. While she is likeable, she simply does not have the versatility that is essential to this show.

Garcia's partner, Marquis Cunningham, however (born in Cumberland, NC, by the way), is another story. He is an extraordinarily talented lyrical dancer, who has trained his body to do amazing things. He is expressive, fluid, masculine, graceful.

So last Thursday he was "dancing for his life." In his thirty seconds he threw himself into an exuberant dance that showed his most powerful moves, including his ability to rise to his feet from a kneeling position over the tops of his toes.

His performance left us gasping. We replayed it immediately. His dance was a thing of beauty.

The judges unanimously rejected him on the grounds that his dance was a "series of tricks."

We were stunned. The whole point of "dancing for your life" is to do your best stuff. Breakers and poppers do all their tricks at such times, and the judges say, "You showed us why you made it onto this show." Well, Cunningham's virtuosity is what got him onto the show -- what was he supposed to do, not use his most unusual and powerful movements?

In thirty seconds it's not as if anyone can do a full, coherent dance. Furthermore, these dancers did not come here as choreographers. That's why the show hires choreographers to come in and direct them. So why would they reject Cunningham for a flawless performance of his coolest stuff, on the grounds that his choreography was lacking?

Here is my guess: All three men were superb. (In fact, most of the men are far and away better than most of the women this year. It just happened that way.) They didn't want to get rid of any of them. But Cunningham was Garcia's partner. Since she was leaving, the least disruptive decision would be to bounce her partner as well.

Besides, Marquis Cunningham was one of the two most-skilled dancers in the show this year -- and the other one, Debbie Allen's protégé, is the judges' pet. Since Cunningham is far more likeable than Will Wingfield, it seems as if the judges might have, consciously or un-, taken the opportunity to get rid of him so that he couldn't, through some fluke, spoil their plan of having Will Wingfield as the sole contemporary dancer in the finals.

Yet Marquis is everything they claimed to be looking for. How do you get rid of someone like that?

You demean and insult him by calling his glorious hard-earned skills "tricks" and dismissing his dance as nothing but a "series" of them. When they said what they did, it's as if they slapped his face -- he looked stunned and hurt. It was the cruelest thing I've ever seen a judge do -- not even Simon Cowell has hurt someone like that -- and they did it to a performer who had just executed a flawless dance that no other dancer on that show could have done.

It was so out of character for these judges. I am still angry about it. To treat him so dismissively ...

And on top of that, the camera work last week was obtrusive and ham-handed. Somebody apparently told the director of the show that it was no longer a dance show, it was a camera show.

The idea of dance is that the choreographer and the dancers move bodies rhythmically through space.

But when the camera keeps doing closeups, we don't get to see that body motion through space. When it keeps showing only one of the dancers, we don't get to choose whom to look at, or to see where our eye would naturally go. When the camera swirls around them, then it's the camera that's dancing, and it distracts from the very art that we wanted to see.

Changing from one angle to another -- from one motionless camera to another -- is occasionally helpful, especially if the director has seen the dance before and knows when one angle will be better than another.

But constant movement of the camera, or any movement at all that forces us to look at only one tiny part of the dance instead of allowing us to see the whole of it, makes as much sense as if, on American Idol, the audio engineer occasionally focused on one accompanying instrument, shutting out all the others, so that instead of hearing the entire musical experience, we got only one track at a time.

I hope they get that camera under control, or I'm afraid I won't bother watching for the whole season. As it is, their stupid reason for ousting Marquis Cunningham and their cruel way of saying it have made me want to avoid the show anyway.

On the final show of this past season, Simon Cowell apologized to David Cook for his overly negative comments after the finals -- and properly so. These judges owe Marquis Cunningham a far more fervent apology. They can't put him back on the show, but they can admit that their stated reason for booting him was flatulent.

*

Speaking of things that ruin the art of dance, I have to say that one thing So You Think You Can Dance got right was when they showed us, in the auditions, how the dancers who were watching treated their fellow contestants.

They gave them the respect of complete, silent attention during their dance, so that their concentration was never broken; only after the dance was over did they show their admiration by applause commensurate with the performance.

By contrast, in the dance-school recitals I've attended in Greensboro, I have been irked -- and sometimes infuriated -- by the way the dancers who were watching constantly cheered and shouted and whistled and catcalled. Supposedly they were doing this "in support of" the performers -- but the effect was indistinguishable from the rudest kind of heckling.

It makes the dancing schools in Greensboro look amazingly ignorant, that they permit their students to behave in such a low-class way. Art is not athletics. You cheer to encourage an athletic team; you respect artists -- even student artists -- by doing nothing to distract from what they're creating.

I wish the dancing schools in our town would teach their students to respect the art they're supposedly being taught.

Athletics, you see, is not about the relationship between players and the audience -- it's about the conflict between teams. But the performing arts are not competitive, they're creative -- and the audience is there to receive the art as it is meant to be received. In the case of dance, that means you hear the music and see the movement and nothing else.

Maybe this is how "competitive" dance works everywhere. If so, then it bears about the same relationship to the art of dance as construction-worker catcalls bear to the art of oratory.

*

Best new potato chip: From Good Health Natural Foods, the chilean lime flavor Avocado Oil Potato Chips. They didn't go overboard with the lime flavoring, and the avocado oil affects the flavor only for the better. We've tested it with quite a few people now, and it's a favorite.

*

Entertainment Weekly's double issue for June 27th and July 4th touts "the New Classics" -- supposedly the 1000 best movies, TV shows, albums, books, and other stuff from the past 25 years.

As a retrospective, it's a great collection, and it's fun to browse through it and remember things you might have forgotten. It's also fun to argue with friends about whether they got their choices right or not.

But their section on books was an embarrassment. This is no surprise -- the book reviewing in EW has never been anything other than spotty. But this time the writers embarrassed themselves by showing how completely enslaved they are to the elitist tastes of English majors who believed in all the nonsense their professors said.

In short, they tried as hard as they could to pretend that their list was for the New York Review of Books rather than Entertainment Weekly.

Here's the problem: The New York Times Book Review and the New York Review of Books have, between them, a corner on the elitist sneering snob review rag. Entertainment Weekly is supposed to be something else -- it's supposed to be about what ordinary intelligent people enjoy. Not what they're impressed by, but what they love.

So what do they choose as the best novel of the past twenty-five years?

The first bad sign is that it's a book that was only published in 2006. The second bad sign is that it's by a nearly-unreadable critics' darling.

Every time I hear about how brilliant Cormac McCarthy is, I pick up one of his books and try to slog through the pretentious, self-displaying prose. The problem is that he's so in love with his own writing that he hardly needs a spectator. I give him credit for not being as egregiously dumb as Jonathan Franzen, who writes like a precocious fourteen-year-old -- and who also made their list -- but this is truly, deeply bad writing, folks. It only impresses people who read fiction in order to be impressed.

The actual content of The Road is like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale -- the author moves into territory that science fiction writers have been working with -- brilliantly, I might add -- for two generations, and without any sign that they have bothered to read any of the excellent works that pioneered this kind of subject matter, the author shows off his or her ineptitude with the pride of a Shirley Temple imitator. Look what I thought of!

Oh, how cute. But it's already been done, by smarter people and better writers than you.

Then again, Handmaid's Tale also made their list. So at least they're consistent.

When J.K. Rowling moved into middle-grades fantasy, she read a lot of what had gone before. She also borrowed from a lot of it, but imitation is the sincerest form of flattery -- and she certainly gave it her own turn.

The EW writers could not ignore Harry Potter in their list -- the popular publishing phenomenon of the past 25 years cannot be overlooked, despite their longing to be taken seriously by the snobs.

They solved this dilemma by choosing the fourth book in the series, Goblet of Fire, and dismissing the books that came before as "pure kid stuff." With Goblet she supposedly went "epic and dark -- killing children, resurrecting evil, and sending Harry to war."

Excuse me ... but weren't Harry's parents murdered right at the start? There was plenty of darkness from the beginning. These reviewers are reporting on their own attitudes, to call it "kid stuff." If it took them until book four to realize what was going on, it just means they're second-rate readers.

Their book list is also padded with late-in-the-game works by writers whose important work was all prior to the 25-year frame they had chosen. Thus we get minor Philip Roth and John Updike -- perhaps because they would have felt bad about leaving teacher's pets like these out of the list.

And they showed how easily they're fooled by pretentious tricks (yes, I know that this is right after I criticized the So You Think You Can Dance judges for using that term -- but I'm right, and they weren't). Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain is an incoherent mess of a story -- but it touches all the right politically correct buttons, and it's told so awkwardly that it has to be art.

It's a list dominated by ideology and undergraduate tastes. The books they admire are full of trite and easily-imitated tricks and tropes -- but those tricks and tropes are precisely the "experiments" that the academic-literary elite puts forth as "good writing." It isn't; it never was; it never will be. But it will continue to be praised by reviewers whose judgments are shaped by what they think their friends will think of their opinions.

As William Goldman put it in The Season, many critics suffer from the fear that if they ever praise something that their elitist friends haven't already praised, they leave themselves open to the sneer: "So that's what you like!"

(And for those who will inevitably point out that I'm probably just irritated that none of my books made the list: I am in such excellent company, being ignored by this list, that I am content. Would I have written differently if a book of mine had made their list? If every other choice were still there, then my opinion would have been the same; I would modestly have pointed out that their choice of my book was one of the few exceptions to their otherwise execrable taste.

(If I wrote my reviews with self-interest in mind, do you think I would write a negative review of Entertainment Weekly's reviewers? Is there anything dumber that a self-aggrandizing writer could do?

(Uncle Orson reviews everything. Even when, like a sneaky dog, it will probably get behind me and take a good solid bite. That's the risk you take, as a reviewer of reviewers....)

No, the most egregious omission on this list was the real literary tour-de-force The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield. She is head-and-shoulders the superior of dull see-me-write writers like McCarthy and Atwood. Where the elitists play their literary games instead of telling a good, original, powerful story (though you're supposed to think you were told one), Setterfield did it all at once.

When it comes to books, EW did not pick the "new classics." With only a few exceptions, they picked the "trendy ephemera" -- the intellectual fad books of the past twenty-five years. The books with staying power have yet to be chosen -- and you can be sure the EW reviewers won't be the ones choosing them.

*

After my review of Fritz Leiber as the originator of the sword and sorcery genre, reader Dan Mathieu wrote in: "I was glad to see you acknowledge Fritz Leiber, but wasn't Robert E. Howard first in the sword and sorcery genre with Conan in 1932?"

The Conan novels have been marketed as s&s books in recent years; but at the time, I believe, the Conan stories were received as being in the adventure genre, like the works of A. Merritt and H. Rider Haggard. Being the first to write in a certain vein does not mean you originated a genre -- while science fiction certainly owed a lot to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it was the magazine stories published by Hugo Gernsback that created the genre. And it is my belief that Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories spawned the sword-and-sorcery genre, though the Conan stories were immediately recognized as belonging to the same tradition.

Ultimately, it's an empty argument. Robert E. Howard wrote in solitary splendor; Leiber spawned imitators. Both their works endure, as they should.


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