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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 2, 2010

Every Day Is Special

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


Tangled, Mother-Daughter Talk, Amish, Zagat

I always liked the core of the Rapunzel story -- the girl imprisoned in a tower, with hair so long and sturdy that she can lower it like a rope for someone to climb.

The rest of the story surrounding the Grimm brothers' version of the tale seemed like generic fairy tale stuff to me; all that mattered was the imprisoned girl and the hair.

Which is pretty much how writer Dan Fogelman approached the script of Disney's fiftieth animated feature, the somewhat musical, somewhat comedy version of the Rapunzel story, called Tangled.

The movie is true to its roots -- the Disney formulas are there. Old wicked woman; cute animal sidekick, everyone modestly dressed, slapstick comedy.

Only Fogelman did something that none of the earlier Disney musicals ever did, in my opinion: Amid all the clamor and comedy, he created human relationships, funny because they were true.

It all centers around Rapunzel's relationship with her supposed mother, the selfish old woman who kidnapped her because she needed Rapunzel's magical hair (plus a song) to keep her young.

Apart from the hair, there isn't a speck of magic in the movie, unless you count a preternaturally talented horse. Instead, what you get is a young woman who has been manipulated by her mother through the standard "I'm only thinking of you; what's a mother to do; so this is the thanks I get" repertoire of emotional manipulation.

Rapunzel responds to her mother as you might expect from a smart and feisty teenager. She tries to wheedle and manipulate right back -- only Rapunzel actually means what she's saying, which imposes a terrible limitation on her in all this game-playing: Rapunzel can only say what she means. Wicked ur-mother, on the other hand, can say whatever will get the results she wants.

Enter Flynn Rider, thief and double-crosser, who climbs Rapunzel's tower only to get beaned by Rapunzel's frying pan. The slapstick of Rapunzel's efforts to neutralize this invader are so brilliant that I laughed till I cried. How many face-plants can you resort to before they stop being funny? I still don't know, and they used a lot of them.

Inevitably, Flynn wheedles her out of the tower, and then we get the most brilliant comedy of the whole movie, as Rapunzel goes bipolar, thrilled to be free and see the beautiful world, and at the same time appalled at her own ingratitude and disobedience to her beloved mother.

Because that's the great secret. Just because a mother is manipulative and selfish doesn't mean her daughter doesn't love her. It takes a lot to kill a child's love -- in this case a whole movie.

But it isn't just a wonderfully funny comedy and a pleasantly adequate musical: It's also deeply moving at times. The powerful symbolism of the little hot-air balloons that the king and queen launch every year on Rapunzel's birthday, in honor of their kidnapped daughter, becomes a powerful emblem of love, of hope amidst mourning.

The king and queen never speak. They don't have to. We understand their grief; we understand every nuance of their feelings at the reunion with their daughter. (Oh, right, that's a spoiler, because you didn't even think of the possibility that Rapunzel might be restored to her family.)

The final confrontation among Flynn, Rapunzel, and the wicked old woman is perfect, and the feelings the movie reaches for are well-earned. There was no weaseling, either -- harsh things happen. We experience a noble romantic tragedy.

Which then turns to a eucatastrophe, which really would spoil things for me to recount. Suffice it to say that at the end, my family and I sat there in awe.

What a year for animations this has been! How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and Tangled are, all three, better than the best of the live action movies.

And yes, I'm including Inception in that comparison, because, clever and well-made as that movie is, it ended with a cheap trick and a cheat; on a deeper level, it asked for us to care about a relationship that we never really experienced.

It's just as well that animated films have been given their own Oscar category, however. There is little chance the Oscar voters, who are largely actors, would place the work of animators and voice actors above the achievements of live actors like themselves. Inception remains the favorite and will probably win; that wouldn't be a bad choice at all, because it's a brilliant movie.

But for me, this year the Best Picture category won't be half as interesting as this three-way race between How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3, and Tangled in the Best Animated Feature category.

The nostalgia and love of Toy Story 3 may make that the favorite of many, perhaps most. But there were two previous movies to build up our emotional investment in the characters. Tangled achieved it all in this one film.

And what a shame for the makers of Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. These were all delightful films, into which many talented people poured years of their lives. It's merely an unfortunate coincidence that they appeared in the same year as three genuine masterpieces of animated storytelling.

*

As I watched the brilliant mother-daughter interplay in Tangled, I couldn't help but be reminded, again and again, of Deborah Tannen's outstanding book You're Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Tannen burst onto the scene as researcher and writer in 1990 with her book about communication differences between men and women, You Just Don't Understand.

It seemed to me that this was the source of every intelligent idea in the much bigger bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, just as Eric Berne's seminal Games People Play was the source of every important idea in I'm OK, You're OK.

What I didn't realize in the decades since I read You Just Don't Understand is that Tannen didn't sit still and rest on her laurels. She has come out with other books on communication between sisters (You Were Always Mom's Favorite!), within families (I Only Say This Because I Love You), between men and women at work (Talking from 9 to 5), between friends (Conversational Style) and in relationships (That's Not What I Meant!).

The book I happened to pick up, though, was You're Wearing That? I am neither a mother nor a daughter, so I may not seem to be in the target audience. But I have seen mothers and daughters close-at-hand for many years, and I found Tannen's treatment of their fraught relationships to be compassionate yet clear-headed, fair to both sides but not blind to the fact that not everybody's motives are pure.

Over Thanksgiving, my wife and her sister had a conversation with my daughter and my niece. None of them had read Tannen's book, yet each mother-daughter pair laughed aloud together as they recounted particular moments that might have come straight out of You're Wearing That?

Our daughter, who went through her teen years with long blond hair, told of how my wife would stop her as she was heading out the door to go to high school. "Did you brush your hair?" asked my wife. Oh, how annoying! Especially because usually the hair had not been brushed. Now our daughter, so irritated at the time, could laugh and say, "Day after day, her nagging saved me from going to school looking slept-in!"

Then her cousin, who went through some serious health problems in high school that caused her weight to fluctuate wildly at times, said, "And how many times did we pull up at a drive-through and when I asked for fries, Mom would ask, 'Are you sure you need fries right now?'" But she admitted now that this only happened during her dangerous weight-gain episodes, and her mother's nagging certainly saved her much needless distress. "I really didn't need the fries," she said.

It's a love-hate -- or, rather, a grateful/annoyed -- thing. And it changes in meaning as the daughters become adults. What feels to a daughter like manipulation and control can seem to the mother like a continuation of her love and concern for her daughter.

Tannen is an excellent writer. She's also a first-rate researcher and, I daresay, clinician. While she doesn't do experimental science per se, she is very good at eliciting, collecting, and interpreting stories and experiences of mothers and daughters.

This is must-read stuff for women with mothers and women with daughters. It's also illuminating for men who love women and have the chance to help them cope with the frustrations of trying to communicate with their mothers and/or daughters.

And I'll bet that a good number of men reading this column are already planning to add this book to their list of gifts to give their wife ... and their daughters!

*

I rarely review books I haven't read, but in this case I'm truly not in the target audience for Cindy Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt trilogy: When the Heart Cries, When the Morning Comes, and When the Soul Mends. I'm passing along the views and judgments of some of the readers I trust most in the world, since they vet my books before I turn them in to my publisher.

My wife read the first volume because of a positive review, and has since passed them along to several friends. They all agree that they are "light" reading -- that is, you don't have to have an M.A. in literature to appreciate them. As one friend said, "Sometimes light reading is exactly what you want."

These books fall into a literary sub-genre called "Amish romance." They show up, not in the Romance section of the bookstore, but under Christian or Religious Fiction.

And here's why: The Romance genre has become a branch of pornography, to put it bluntly. Yet the obligatory sex scenes cheapen and often destroy the genuine romances, so that many women readers are now repulsed by the physical lust that dominates Romance writing. Especially Historical Romance, where the heroines all behave in ways that would destroy them socially -- or tag them as members of much lower social orders than they were born into.

In an Amish romance, on the other hand, ain't nobody even gonna kiss nobody else, let alone hump like bunnies whenever they're alone in the barn.

Not all Amish romances are created equal. It's not the absence of sex that makes Woodsmall's Sisters of the Quilt such a pleasure to read. Woodsmall is a good writer, and her characters are well drawn, the relationships worth caring about, the plots surprisingly inventive.

So along with You're Wearing That?, gentlemen, you may wish to toss these three books by Woodsmall -- or at least the first volume, When the Heart Cries -- under the tree with your wife's or daughter's name on the tag.

*

Gnam Gnam, Greensboro's world-class gelato shop on Lawndale, a few doors away from Fresh Market, is celebrating the first anniversary of its opening. On December third, fourth, and fifth, they'll be selling two scoops for a buck, and twenty-five dollar gift cards for twenty bucks. Not to mention two dollars off any salad or panini.

In other words, they're practically giving away some of the best food and treats in Greensboro. This is the place I take visitors who have been to Europe and know what gelato (or glace) is supposed to taste like -- and they are all astonished to find that it is as good as the very best Europe has to offer.

So if you haven't tried Gnam Gnam yet, why not do it this weekend, when it's very nearly free?

*

Many of you may be familiar with the Zagat series of restaurant guides for major metropolitan areas. If you don't often go to New York or DC or LA or Seattle or Boston, you might not have run into them. The concept is to collect the reviews of people who dine out regularly and then average their ratings to come up with a score that generally ranges between 10 and 25, 10 being pretty dreadful and 25 being food so good you could cry.

Not every metro area uses the same standards. A Dallas-Ft. Worth 25 might only get an 18 in New York or LA or a 21 in San Francisco or Boston. What matters is the comparison among restaurants by people who regularly dine out in that city.

I've been using Zagat guides for years to find good restaurants in unfamiliar cities -- or new restaurants in towns where I've often dined out but now am looking for a change. I also submit reviews in major cities where I eat out and try new restaurants often enough to be able to make comparisons: LA, New York, Orange County, and DC.

(There would be little point in publishing a Zagat guide to Greensboro restaurants -- or even to North Carolina restaurants. Each city in NC is too small, with too few restaurants, so that even though I personally rate several Greensboro restaurants as being good enough to compete in major metro areas, I couldn't tell you diddly about how restaurants in Raleigh or Asheville or Charlotte or Winston compare with ours, because I never go there to dine. I daresay most Zagat reviewers would be the same, so the comparisons would be meaningless.)

Zagat also publishes night-life guides, but as a non-drinking Mormon, "night-life" is a meaningless term when it doesn't apply to bats, owls, mosquitos, or chirping crickets.

However, Zagat has come up with a new concept: Zagat's guide to The World's Best Movies. It uses the Zagat system -- ratings by scads of volunteers, which are then mathematically massaged (the ratings, not the volunteers) to result in scores ranging up to 30.

The book is the size of a standard Zagat guide, so that it's obvious they couldn't list every movie that anybody ever liked. They have several grave omissions -- for instance, they skip from The Green Mile to the sappy, dated Guess Who's Coming to Dinner without leaving room for the classic comedy Groundhog Day.

By and large, though, most people's top 100 movies list will be well-represented in this book, even if some favorites, especially the obscure ones, are left out.

Oddly enough, Zagat guides seem to be exactly the right size to stuff into a Christmas stocking. And this one will be pleasing to anyone who cares about the movies, no matter where in America or Canada they live.

Not only will the guide give you plenty to argue about with your friends or family, it might also alert you to movies that you have forgotten about or never heard of.

For instance, here's a sample Zagat review of the classic comedy The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray:

"Sex in the big, bad city" has never been as "realistic" or "touching" as in this "sad-edged romance", recounting the exploits of a "hapless" "junior exec in love with his boss' mistress"; it pits a "baby-faced" Lemmon opposte a "tender" MacLaine, and besides being "very amusing", it's also a "powerful social comment masquerading as comedy."

The quotations are excerpted from the comments of the stable of Zagat reviewers -- they're what regular smart people said about it.

The ratings? An overall score of 25, with a 28 for acting, 25 for story, and 23 for production values.

Now, I personally rate The Apartment far higher than the pretentious and tedious Apocalypse Now (the next review in the book), which got 27, 27, 25, and 28. But that's a matter of personal taste. The point is that they're both movies that are part of the public conversation in our culture.

I had almost forgotten about The Apartment, I saw it so many years ago. But, reminded of it, I sat down with my family over the Thanksgiving holidays and watched our DVD of it ... and it was better than ever.

That's what this book is for, in my opinion -- to remind us of great movies of the past, so we can stay home and watch them instead of the miserable fare that we are usually offered in the theaters today.


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