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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 12, 2008

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


Janis Ian, Ember, Weaver, I Never Sang

Janis Ian is in Greensboro this week, signing her autobiography, Society's Child, and chatting with fans at Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center, on Tuesday, 21 October, at seven p.m.

I already reviewed her autobiography -- the best celebrity autobiography I've ever heard of. She wrote every word of it herself, and it's a powerful, candid, moving book. I'm glad I didn't live her life -- but I'm glad to have it so vividly in my memory. Even if you don't know her music, you want to read this book!

Meanwhile, though, her music was at the heart of the folk-rock revolution at the end of the 1960s. With Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and others she turned pop music from empty love songs to powerful poems and protests, from standard three-chord ditties to interesting, innovative, and pleasing music. And she did this as a teenager.

Now, like me, Janis Ian is a grownup -- and her music is better than ever. Folks, we don't get the chance to listen to and chat with artists and writers of her stature very often. You're crazy if you miss this chance.

Admission is free. But the idea is to buy the book. Way cheaper than a concert ticket -- and the book would be worth the price even without the chance to see and hear her in person.

For those of you who'd like to attend an event with even more of her music, Greenville SC isn't far away. She'll be performing there at the Handlebar Cafe on Friday, October 24th. The phone number, for ticketing and other information, is 864-233-6173. There are also performances and signings in Charlotte and many other places. Find out more at http://janisian.com/tourinfo.html.

*

It isn't often that I get to see a movie with a truly original vision, something that thrills me just to look at. But such a film opened last week, and it seems that everyone is pretty much ignoring it.

And that's a shame. Because City of Ember, besides telling a very good story, besides having superb performances from quite an impressive cast, creates a fully realized alternate universe. The only movie I can fairly compare it to is Terry Gilliam's breathtaking Brazil -- and I'd have to flip a coin as to which of them is better.

Though it's easy when it comes to story -- Brazil ends by denying everything that's gone before, as in Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, whereas Ember has an actual ending.

The story is that, with the surface of Earth becoming uninhabitable, "the Builders" create a city deep underground. It's designed to last 200 years, at which time the outside world should be inhabitable again. The Builders give the mayor of the city a case with a timer on it that counts down to that happy day. The trouble is that one of the mayors keels over unexpectedly, and the case is "lost." So when the time runs out, the mayor has no idea. The city just goes on, getting older and poorer, with more and more things breaking down.

That's why there are Messengers running about on foot -- the phones don't work any more. A few rundown robots putter along, but everything is done by hand.

With limited resources -- and limited job opportunities -- the people of the city accept the idea that when you graduate from school, your career is chosen by drawing it out of a hat. Our two heroes, Doon Harrow and Lina Mayfleet, are deeply unhappy with what they drew -- so they swap.

Soon they find themselves involved in trying to get past a corrupt mayor and fulfil the purpose of the Builders. Doon's father, a mad inventor, has built at least one machine that turns out to be just what they need; Lina's father died trying to find a way out of the city.

The movie is based on a good book -- a children's book -- and is quite faithful to it. Tim Robbins, Bill Murray, Mary Kay Place, and other familiar actors do excellent work; Harry Treadaway and Saoirse Ronan play the leads with complete believability.

In fact none of the actors show a sign that they think they're in a "children's movie." And the only "magic" in the movie is the sheer lushness of it -- mixed with a lot of wry and subtle humor, or simple delight, as when Lina begins her duty as a messenger and seems to flit through crowds like a hot knife through butter.

I don't know whether it's lack of promotion, the relative unfamiliarity of the book (it ain't Narnia or Harry Potter), or the inability of reviewers to see past the "kids' movie" label, but I've hardly seen it mentioned and it came in eleventh at the box office on its opening weekend.

But who cares? I heartily recommend this film to everybody -- whether you have children or not. Even if the story weren't good (and it is), it's a wonderful world to inhabit for an hour or so. Don't miss it on the big screen.

*

When the father-son drama I Never Sang for My Father debuted on Broadway in 1968, a young Hal Holbrook played Gene, the son and narrator; Lillian Gish played his mother.

Now, forty years later, the drama department at our own Weaver Academy for Performing & Visual Arts is mounting a production, which opens tonight (Thursday, 16 October) at 7:00 p.m., with performances on Friday and Saturday evenings and on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.

I got a chance to watch a run-through last Saturday, and I was very happy with the quality of the acting and the staging.

You see, Weaver's drama program has been through hard times in recent years. My older daughter took part toward the end of Dan Seaman's long and distinguished tenure there, but after he left there were a few years when the program seemed lost.

In fact, a few years ago I taught a two-week summer acting workshop for some of the students who had been frustrated by a whole year without acting training. (They used class periods to paint sets!)

Two of those students went on to play leading roles in my production of Romeo & Juliet. By then there was a different teacher at Weaver, but not much improvement. She couldn't find time to attend any of the performances or rehearsals to see what her students were doing.

But this is a new year and a new era: Weaver's drama program has a faculty again. Keith Taylor and Diane Rogers bring a lot of experience to Weaver Academy, and it's already showing up in this first production.

These are young actors, and they're learning. But they're also talented, I saw some really exciting moments, especially from the vibrant Rebekah Carmichael as Alice. Josh Kaufman does a good job of playing an old man, and Jonathan Cobrda's moody Gene is quite affecting.

Over the years I've found that the differences between Broadway and local theatre are not as drastic as you might think. Production values are higher (along with budgets and ticket prices!) in New York, but when it comes to understanding -- or misunderstanding -- a play, you can get howlingly bad errors in the Big Apple, and sensitive and insightful interpretations in, of all things, the local arts high school.

When I attended the Arts Faculty Benefit Concert at Weaver a few weeks ago, I expected a talent show; instead, some of the faculty performed at a professional level.

Mark Freundt, the piano teacher, is very, very good -- especially when he played some Thelonious Monk and Johnny Mercer with percussionist Sandy Blocker. Patrick Lui's guitar work was also quite excellent, and I was delighted to see that Keith Taylor -- with his son, Jared -- could put on a good comedysketch.

Come see your tax dollars at work. Guilford County's performing arts school has its drama program back on track, and I think you'll find it's worth the eight bucks for adults to see I Never Sang for My Father.


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