Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 7, 2010
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Oscars and Idol
Talk show hosts this week have been making the same old lame jokes about how long the Oscars
ran last Sunday night. They ignore the fact that for those of us who actually enjoy the show, it's
not a moment too long.
Sometimes what we love are those train-wreck moments -- in past years, things like the Spanish
film director who launched into a diatribe against America; the deification of Al Gore; Michael
Moore's very existence -- and sometimes we're just hoping for something wonderfully strange,
like Sacheen Littlefeather showing up to reject Marlon Brando's Oscar, or the streaker who ran
naked behind David Niven, or Roberto Benigni scrambling over the seats to reach the stage to
accept his Oscar, or Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups and Billy Crystal joking that he
fathered a crowd of young children.
But mostly we love the movies. And this year was the best Oscar ceremony in many years.
We owe it all to President Obama, of course.
No, I'm serious. For half a decade, we got so much politically correct stupidity, such vilification
of the beliefs of at least half the country, that it felt, not like a celebration, but like a declaration
of civil war by the effete elite against us unenlightened bigots who actually, like, shop at
WalMart and have children and stay married to the same person for weeks on end.
But now that Obama is President and the Democrats control both houses of Congress, how can
the geniuses of Hollywood complain about anything? Yes, there are still terrorists sequestered in
Guantanamo; yes, we're still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same Defense Secretary in
charge; yes, the administration is still launching drone attacks to assassinate terrorist leaders;
yes, some suspects are still being remanded to foreign governments for questioning using
methods that might be illegal for Americans to use; yes, the economy is even farther in the toilet
than it was when Obama came to office; yes, this Congress and administration are even more
corrupt than usual (though corrupt Democrats are given in-school suspension for offenses that
would get a Republican expelled); but doggone it, under Obama Hollywood knows that all these
actions are righteous and/or necessary, instead of constituting proof that the president is insane,
stupid, and/or evil incarnate.
OK, I was only half serious. The other reason why there was no politically correct cant was
because somebody noticed that a lot of Americans have been tuning out in recent years, feeling
-- correctly -- that Hollywood despised them and we weren't really welcome at the party. This
has shown up, not just in the ratings for the Oscar show, but also at the box office.
How many of you, for instance, didn't go to see Hurt Locker because every other recent war
movie from Hollywood was just another excuse to show how evil America was? (You know,
like Avatar.) Look at "best" pictures like American Beauty, which showed how American
suburbia was almost as morally degenerate as movie stars, or Million Dollar Baby, which
showed us how noble it was for a man who didn't believe in suicide to murder a friend who did.
Look how the movies we actually love are usually ignored by the Academy, which vies to
nominate the most despicable movies of the year.
Well, somebody noticed that maybe, if you want to keep a business going, you should try to sell
the audience something a little closer to what they actually want.
So this year they had ten best-movie nominees (the way they originally did), so that the list could
include audience favorites as well as snob hits. And while the winner this year was a terrifyingly
realistic (but apolitical!) military thriller that was far from being the most popular movie at the
box office, I haven't heard from anybody who saw it who didn't approve of its having received
Every Day's So Special!
11-17 March 2010
By Uncle Orson
Thursday, 11 March -- "Johnny Appleseed Day." John Chapman was a real man who, starting about 1800, roamed
the frontier country between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, planting apple orchards ahead of the settlers, then
moving on to preach Swedenborgian Christianity along with his gift of sustenance.
Friday, 12 March -- Anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first "Fireside Chat." FDR was careful to keep
these direct addresses to the American people rare and important, and even people who opposed his policies
tuned in to hear what he had to say. If you talk too much, people stop listening (and I should know!)
Friday is also "Middle Name Pride Day." The program is simple: Tell your middle name to three people who don't
already know it (even if it's something appalling, like "Orson").
Saturday, 13 March -- Genealogy Day. In a lot of American families, this isn't about finding some ancient ancestor
back in the home country. This is about looking up uncles and aunts, cousins, or even (sadly) brothers and
sisters your family has lost touch with over the years.
Saturday is also "National Open an Umbrella Indoors Day." It's all about defying absurd superstitions. The
organizers of this event urge you to note down whether you have any bad luck. But what's the time limit? If
anything at all goes wrong within days or weeks, it can feel like proof. The real evidence would come if you
wrote down every single thing that ever went wrong in your life, and then see whether there's an increase around
the time you opened an umbrella indoors.
Sunday, 14 March -- Check Your Batteries Day. The idea is that if on every March 14th you check -- or change
-- the batteries in your smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and every remote control and battery-powered clock in the house, you'll never be surprised by a dead battery (or one that has leaked and corroded the
Monday, 15 March, is the beginning of National Wildlife Week. Connect with nature. Take a spider outdoors
instead of stomping on it.
Tuesday, 16 March -- birthday of James Madison, fourth President of the United States and husband of
Greensboro's own Dolley Madison.
Wednesday, 17 March -- St. Patrick's Day. I've never understood why people who are neither Irish nor Catholic
pay the slightest attention to this day, while ignoring the patron saints of so many other countries. Do you even
know, for instance, what the day of St. George or St. Denis might be? Or of which nations they are the patron
Americans aren't stupid. We know that sometimes we go to the movies for sheer entertainment
-- or to see the special effects, when we know the story is lame beyond belief, or a collection of
cliches stolen from the work of much better artists (hey, Avatar -- "I see you!") -- while the
great movies sometimes can only be watched once. So we don't mind when a less popular
movie wins, as long as it's not a movie that hates us or ridicules us.
Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were charming hosts, and the jokes they recited were exactly as
funny as they should have been. They seemed to believe that their job was to poke fun at an
assemblage of the most thin-skinned people in the world -- instead of trying to shock or offend
the audience that pays for the tickets that have made them rich.
The opening production number with Neil Patrick Harris was delightful (continuing the Billy
Crystal tradition), and for a long time I enjoyed the lack of any other live production number. I
never understood the longtime Oscar habit of putting on big live musical numbers to celebrate a
Hollywood in which musicals are pretty much dead, and "live" is the opposite of what
Hollywood actually does.
So I was grateful when, instead of having a live presentation of each nominated song, they
simply showed a clip from the movie for which it was made, giving us an idea of how the song
worked in the show.
My gratitude was premature. Because in introducing us to the best original score nominees, they
ludicrously had a bunch of not-very-well-choreographed dancers flood the stage and do dances
that had nothing to do with the movies or, in some cases, the music.
Why didn't anyone have the brains to simply show us clips from the movies with the score
playing, but all the sound effects and dialogue removed? This is program music -- it is meant to
be part of a complete effect, and was written to fit into quite specific visual moments. Why not
show us the music in situ?
I'm not sure how I felt about the tributes to the nominees for best actor and actress. For the
nominees in the supporting-role categories, they had given us pretty good film-clip samples of
the nominated performances; but for the leading-role nominees, they had other professionals who
had worked with them stand up and tell anecdotes and/or praise them.
The problem with this is that while some of them were wonderful, some of them were so lame
you wondered if the person talking had ever actually met the nominee or seen any of his or her
work. And very little of what was said actually had anything to do with the nominated
So even though I liked about half the little eulogies, the other half included some so
embarrassingly awful that this is an idea that needs to be scrapped, just to spare us the sadness
we are bound to feel for the poor actor who clearly has no friends in Hollywood. (Which is, of
course, most of them, until the moment they win, at which point they suddenly have a thousand
Favorite train-wreck moment: When "Music by Prudence" won, director Roger Ross Williams
was interrupted by a woman who followed him up to the stage and interrupted him, saying, "Let
the woman talk."
This was, of course, a white woman interrupting a black director of a documentary about
handicapped musicians in Africa. So apparently black men filming about handicapped
musicians in Africa are "the oppressor" while white women are the universal victims.
When you learn the real story, her interruption becomes even more ludicrous. This woman got a
producer credit because she was the "finder" -- that is, she told the people who actually funded
and made the film about the group of handicapped musicians.
And then, having contributed neither talent, nor labor, nor money, she got angry because they
(correctly) focused on one musician in particular (essential for telling a coherent story) instead of
trying to tell, in a few minutes, the story of the whole group.
The director, who flew to Africa at his own expense to learn about the people and plan the
project, stood there in the face of her incredible rudeness, looking puzzled and appalled, while
she stole from him the moment of glory that he had worked for and earned (and she had not,
since her version of the short was not made and therefore did not receive an Oscar).
As my wife pointed out afterward, this is a self-punishing offense. Do you think there is anyone
in Hollywood or in the world of documentaries or shorts or indie films who will want to work
with this woman or even listen to her pitch an idea? Visions of her angry, unfair, rude, and
deceptive interruption of the Oscar speech will be bound to surface. If she were working the
counter at Subway and you were starving, wouldn't you walk out rather than be served by
someone as obnoxious as she?
This year I made it a point to watch all the animated and live action short films, and even though
some of them were obnoxiously arty, I could understand why they were nominated.
In past years, I've known nothing about the short films and so cared nothing about the short-film
awards. This year, knowing what they all were, I made the mistake of voting for my favorites on
my ballot at our Oscar party, instead of stopping to think: What will actors (the largest voting
In the real world, by far the best animated short was the Wallace & Gromit -- but the actors
couldn't vote for that because it's one of a series of beloved comedies with continuing
characters. Instead, they voted for the needlessly foul-mouthed "Logorama," whose intellectual
concept ("Let's put corporate logos in ironic places!") was simple and plain enough to be
understood even by people who think "the method" has something to do with acting. Besides, it
was violent and dark enough to show that the short's creators admired Quentin Tarantino, who is
still being called a genius despite the existence of so much evidence to the contrary.
Ditto with the live action shorts. "Kavi" was far and away the best, telling a feature's worth of
story; but "The New Tenants" was -- get this -- needlessly foul-mouthed and violent enough
that you can't help but think the filmmakers admired Quentin Tarantino ... Plus it had Vincent
I sound disdainful and, to a degree, I am. But I also understand the choices -- it's all about what
you think short films are supposed to be, and what you think they're supposed to accomplish. If
you think they're supposed to tell a powerful or entertaining story, you vote one way; if you
think they're supposed to "push the envelope," which in Hollywood is still defined as "offending
the middle class of 1957," then you vote another.
Look, I have a great time at our annual Oscar party watching really bad Oscar broadcasts in
years when the movies were all so loathsome that from the promos alone I knew better than to
attend. But I have an even better time when I really like quite a few of the movies and
performances and care about the outcome, and when the movie people in the Oscar broadcast
don't set out to offend me and everybody I love or respect.
This was a good year. We had a great party. The broadcast was not too long.
And since Avatar did not win -- a movie that was entirely created by the science fiction writers
of twenty to sixty years ago, starting with Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe" and Ursula K.
LeGuin's "The Word for World Is Forest," none of whom were credited or paid in any way by a
writer-director who only employs people who think he's a genius -- I have nothing at all to
Who says astronomy doesn't have an effect on everyday life? An instant message from a friend:
"Wow. The earthquake in Chile has made each day on earth 1.26 microseconds shorter. No
wonder I'm not getting as much done."
On this year's American Idol, we've already heard this year's contestants touted as "the best
ever." Maybe the judges believe it, but they're wrong. There have been worse years, but there
have also been better.
There are some standouts. Crystal Bowersox is a full-blown natural, with the kind of control and
richness of voice that can only be compared with Janis Joplin. Siobhan Magnus is also
memorable and actually knows how to sing a song like she means it.
Most of the women, though, have woefully untrained voices, so when they try to sing big they
merely go off pitch and screech; or they try to "style" a song in ways that they simply don't have
the chops to bring off. Maybe Katelyn Epperly will grow into the competition, but I don't
understand why the judges have so much praise for the annoying Katie Stevens or the vocally
underprivileged Lilly Scott. Maybe they'll grow on me.
On the men's side, Michael Lynche is almost as good at his kind of singing as Crystal Bowersox
is at hers -- and he's the best performer in the cast. Lee DeWyze isn't as sure-footed a
performer, but his tone quality and understanding of the songs are unmatched among the guys.
And you can't count out nine-year-old (that's how old he looks) Aaron Kelly, who is awkward
and limited but has heart and is so cute you gotta root for him.
Maybe if Casey James can lose the smirk he can convince us that he actually means what he's
singing; Andrew Garcia has ability, too.
But the fact is that there are few powerhouse voices, and of the lighter-weight voices, even fewer
who understand what they can do and then do it well. It makes me wish that I could have just
one night on the panel of judges to say, "Hey, kid, you're producing your voice by opening your
palate in a way that makes your voice sound weird, and it isn't giving you the power you think it
is," or "Have you heard of your diaphragm? If you use it to support your voice, you won't hurt
our ears by screeching when you think you're singing a big note."
But it isn't American Idol's job to teach singing and performing, but rather to let the contestants
offer what they already know and then learn whatever they can during the run of the show. It
worked for David Cook and Kris Allen, as they overtook frontrunners and won.
If I had to pick a winner right now, it would be Crystal Bowersox. I want her album now. She
already knows how to make me love a song.
Meanwhile, the judges are going through some interesting changes. Randy is actually offering
some coherent suggestions and responses this year -- a first -- and Ellen deGeneres is candid
without being cruel. For a nonsinger, she's surprisingly astute in her vocal as well as
I have no idea how Kara is doing, because the only way this show is watchable to my wife and
me is if we fast-forward through her critiques. Almost everything she did during the audition
weeks was so despicably self-serving, vain, and ignorant that now we simply pretend she isn't
there. However, we have noticed that her comments are getting briefer and briefer, and that's
got to be an improvement.
Simon is still the sharpest judge, and seems -- perhaps under Ellen's influence, perhaps because
he's actually learned something -- to be a little less cruel. And Ryan seems to have gotten over
the impression he has had in recent years that he is the most important of the judges, instead of
what he really is: Not a judge at all.
Will Idol be worth watching when Simon Cowell is gone? Maybe. But I notice a dire sign. Our
fifteen-year-old used to be an avid watcher of the show. But she's now so busy in school that
she can only take the time to watch a handful of shows with the family. Her decision was that
Idol was not one of them.
So in our household, the demographic has Idol being watched (on TiVo recording) by two over-fifties, and ignored by the only under-thirty. This gives Idol stats like Lawrence Welk; how long
will the advertisers be enthusiastic about that?
Still, the show might work without Simon, because Ellen is the other dominant judge and I
believe she can carry the show. If Kara is also given her walking papers and I am hired to
replace her, it will be even better.
OK, yeah, back to planet Earth. Ellen is a good replacement for Simon. She's long been the best
talk-show host on the air, and she brings a dignity and intelligence to Idol that it has never had
before. If the show fails without Simon, it will be because the concept has run its course, not
because Ellen wasn't good enough to take up the slack.