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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 25, 2011

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


Crazy Stupid, Elements, Q-Tips, 1493

We put off seeing Crazy, Stupid, Love because the trailer sent a mixed message.

On the one hand, what a cast! Steve Carell, the most brilliant comic actor working today; Julianne Moore, who is always real in any part; Ryan Gosling, the best-looking, most likeable boy-next-door ever; and supporting performances by consummate character actors Kevin Bacon and Marisa Tomei.

On the other hand, the plot has a thirteen-year-old boy in love with his seventeen-year-old babysitter, who is in love with the boy's father (Carell), whose wife (Moore) has just asked for a divorce and now has to find his way through the dating scene, coached by a stud-about-town (Gosling).

It was so filled with vaguely perverted coincidence that it had to be a farce, and farces are where Steve Carell sometimes goes astray and everybody's over-the-top and so ... we saw movies about apes and segregation-era servants instead.

The plot is farcical, but Crazy, Stupid, Love manages to make it all believable. No, I don't mean "believable for a farce," I mean never-too-much realistically believable.

People are doing absurd things, and yet they have compelling reasons and the writing and acting and directing are so careful, so honest, so restrained that even the humiliating behavior of the thirteen-year-old is completely believable.

This means that instead of a farce, Crazy, Stupid, Love is a comedy; and not a romantic comedy, but a full-fledged domestic comedy that happens to have romances in it.

Comedies rarely win Oscars, but that's a shame, because Crazy, Stupid, Love is every bit as good, in its comedic way, as The Help, which is also, at heart, a comedy, but has the advantage of being about something very serious -- segregation and racism.

Well, divorce and unrequited love are serious, too, and therefore they're every bit as well worth laughing at.

I don't want to tell you the plot. I don't want to tell you anything about Emma Stone's wonderful character or her fresh relationship with Gosling's studly boy. I can't tell you a thing about Tomei's scenery-chewing brilliance as a hot schoolteacher, or Josh Groban's brief part as the "innocent" exploitative nice-guy male.

Even when they have an absurd fight scene on the front lawn between the babysitter's father, Gosling, and Carell, the misunderstandings the fight is based on are completely believable, and the fight itself is so restrained, that it never felt like the fake set-piece "bit" that such movie scenes usually are.

In fact, Crazy, Stupid, Love comes close to ranking with Love Actually and Parenthood and All of Me and You've Got Mail as one of the Great Comedies of Our Time.

Like Love Actually, there are bits that some will find offensive. The story takes place in a moral universe where we're not supposed to mind when a man starts having affairs when he and his wife are not yet actually divorced, and where it's kind of OK for a really angry jilted young woman to demand that a studly barfly take her home.

And because it's a PG-13 movie, the filmmakers made the stupid choice of including one completely needless F-bomb, merely because the rules permit it.

But this is 2011, so we usually have to put up with stuff like that if we're going to watch anything but animated family films.

Meanwhile, though, this is a superb comedy, much better than the promised farce, and at the heart of it is, as so many times before, Steve Carell. He isn't the best comedic actor of our time just because the competition is so lame -- Will Ferrell? Jim Carrey? The shlock comics? Puh-leeeze.

Carell is right up there with the greatest comedy actors of all time: Steve Martin, Tom Hanks, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Peter Sellers.

And he's got the edge on the comedians for whom realistic performances have come only now and then, like Eddy Murphy, John Cleese, Richard Pryor, Bill Murray, Jack Black, Chevy Chase, and Adam Sandler.

When Carell has a good script to work with -- and that seems to happen more and more, as his clout in Hollywood increases -- he is consistently superb.

Why did I put off watching this movie for so long? I almost missed it in the theaters ...

*

Am I the only one who resents the way the "Tea Party" has been taken over by the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party? These clowns have me seriously contemplating voting for Obama.

Back when the Tea Party revolt began, it was non-ideological. The people I knew who spontaneously joined in the demonstrations were from either party, or none, and they were certifiably middle-of-the-road. They were objecting to Obama's insane spending, his rigid leftwing ideology, and his utter inattention to the traditions of American culture.

Now, the so-called "Tea Party" consists of doctrinaire movement conservatives, with a heavy sprinkling of fanatical fundamentalist Christians.

When Michelle Bachman talks about being "submissive" to her husband, when Rick Perry claims that God has chosen him to lead America, I start thinking "Christian Taliban."

Is the Republican Party seriously planning to throw this election back to Obama? Because clowns like these may get cheered at Republican rallies, but they are not going to get one single independent vote.

Independents who voted for Obama in 2008 because it would be cool to have a black president and because they didn't like Bush or the war or they were scared about the crashing economy and wanted the other party to have a shot at fixing things -- does anyone really think they're going to be lured by fanatics from the right wing?

As one of my original-meaning Tea Party friends said to me, "If Michelle Bachman really wouldn't have raised the debt limit under any circumstances, she's too stupid to be president." And he ruefully admitted that he was having to think seriously about voting for Obama.

Isn't it just like Republicans? The opportunity of a lifetime, and they're going to choose their nominee from a parade of clowns and chimps. (Though perhaps that is just too unkind to the chimps.)

I mean, these guys are beginning to make Huckabee and Palin look like centrists.

The only serious candidate remaining on the Republican side is Mitt Romney, and all the clowns agree on only one thing: they're going to savage Romney and get rid of him, since he's the only grown-up in the field.

The idiot wing of the Republican Party thinks Obama won because McCain wasn't conservative enough.

No, kiddies: McCain kept Obama from having a 1964-level landslide precisely because he was a middle-of-the-road, non-doctrinaire Republican with a history of being able to compromise in order to get things done.

We need a president for the whole country, not rigid ideologues like Obama and most of the Republicans vying to run against him. The extreme wings of both parties believe such an absurd mishmash of mutually contradictory dogmas, and are so vicious to anyone who does not join in their insanity, that I shudder to contemplate the future of our country if any of them wins.

At least Obama has learned how to compromise -- grudgingly, petulantly, like a toddler deprived of a toy, but he has learned to comply with reality now and then. Better the clown we have than the clowns piling out of the teeny-tiny car.

*

I got through high school and college without ever taking a chemistry class. What chemistry I know was gleaned from Isaac Asimov's book on organic chemistry.

I learned a bit about the periodic table of elements just from studying it on the wall of various classrooms over the years, and from learning about the history of physics.

But when I saw The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean, I realized this was my chance to plug a hole in my education.

It was way better than that. Kean is a good writer, with an unerring eye for good stories well told. He is quite clear when he explains the physics underlying the behavior of chemicals; he is witty and perceptive when he talks about the struggles and perils faced by those who fought their way to (or stumbled over) an understanding of how the elements work in our world.

So not only is The Disappearing Spoon educational, it's entertaining. Way better than the chemistry class my son took at Page High School, where the teacher proudly announced to parents that the big project of the year was making a three-dimensional model of the periodic table.

I caustically asked her how much of the grade would be based on art, and how much on chemistry. She looked at me as if I had to be insane not to understand how important the periodic table was.

I realized that her art project in homage to the periodic table was an act of worship.

This book, by contrast, is an act of self-improvement. When you come out the other end, you actually know something. I know it's not really high praise to say that The Disappearing Spoon is better than high school chemistry -- but it is. Way better. Even though you never get to touch a bunsen burner.

*

Careful how you handle Q-Tips. No, I'm not warning you about the danger of sticking them in your ears. Absurdly, the packaging warns you not to do that -- even though my guess is that at least half the Q-Tips in the world are used for precisely that purpose.

No, my warning is this: Don't grab handfuls of Q-Tips, or take them out of the box and put them loosely in other containers, not until you've thought about what you are going to use them for.

If you need the Q-Tips to be absorbent, because you're wiping off makeup or applying some goopy liquid to a large area, then go ahead, take them out of the original packaging.

Because the moment you do, the cotton fibers in the Q-Tip heads will begin to loosen and spread. In their new, loose form, they're larger and far more absorbent.

But if you're using the Q-Tips to clean a surface (like the inside of your ear or a joint in wood or metal), then you want the head to be compact and tight, so it remains firm.

A loose Q-Tip head is smeary and imprecise; a tight, compact one can be applied with precision and a bit of leverage.

If that's your purpose, then you want to leave the Q-Tips carefully packed together, taking only one at a time and leaving all the rest to continue to press each other into compactness.

It's like you're actually buying a box of two completely different tools -- loosehead swabs and tighthead swabs -- which are appropriate for completely different tasks, and the way you handle them decides which kind of tool they'll be.

In other words, don't you dare make a mess of my Q-Tip box. If you're borrowing a Q-Tip, take one, and take it very carefully, so you don't disturb the rest.

It's not because I'm a neatness fanatic -- my office desk is proof that I'm not. It's because I keep them as tighthead swabs, and if you mess them up, you ruin the whole box for my purposes!

You might as well take one and throw the rest in the garbage, for all the good they'll be to me after you loosen them all up!

The reason I offer this helpful tip is not because I expect any of you to be raiding my Q-Tip box any time soon. It's because I bet a lot of you are annoyed because Q-Tips do a lousy job, and you don't realize that it's because you're trying to use one condition of Q-Tip to do the job best-suited to the other.

*

I really enjoyed Charles C. Mann's 2006 book 1491, a survey of the way the world was just before Columbus reached America.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the sequel, 1493, is even better.

Subtitled "Uncovering the New World Columbus Created," the book is a powerful overview of how the Columbian exchange transformed the world -- politically, demographically, and biologically.

It's not just a matter of listing all the American crops that spread throughout the world -- maize (corn), potatoes, sweet potatoes (but not yams), tomatoes, rubber -- or the diseases that went the other way and killed off half or more of the native American population.

One of the biggest surprises to me was how deeply involved China and the rest of Asia were in the Columbian exchange almost from the very start. Did you know that most of the silver from Spain's American empire went to China?

Or that far more Africans were brought to the Americas than Europeans -- many of them soldiers captured in African wars, who then established Afro-Indian cities and nations in the hinterlands of an astonishing number of nominally European colonies?

Most of this information is available in other books, of course -- Mann scrupulously cites his sources, and it's clear that this book is entirely based on secondary and tertiary research.

Mann's contribution is to bring the information together into one place. He skillfully shapes the book around mini-biographies of truly fascinating people, but there's also plenty of root information that helps build up the big picture in a clear and vivid way.

From our perspective in an anglocentric culture, it's easy to dismiss Latin America or China as "all one thing." From Mann, we learn that both of them were drastically changed by the rapid mixing of every aspect of these worlds-once-separate.

When English North America was still a backwater, Mexico City was a globalized city, filled with Africans, Indians, and Asians, governed only loosely by the nominal overlords from Spain.

The book contains the best explanation I've yet seen of the actual workings of the slave trade -- helped greatly by the fact that Mann's purpose is not to demonize or assign blame.

In fact, the great illumination to me was that slavery was pervasive in Africa long before the Europeans, but the masters knew their slaves, where they came from, often who their families were, and the door of slavery was not irrevocably locked.

What the Europeans did was commodotize the slaves, buying them as mere hands of labor, not as people, and valuing them only for what they could be compelled to produce.

The shock for the Africans transported to the new world was not slavery per se, but rather the utter cruelty and debasement of the way slavery was practiced under supposedly Christian masters.

Many of the slaves were prisoners taken in wars between African kingdoms and empires -- POWs were the most common source of slaves for many centuries before Europeans arrived. It's what you did with POWs.

So the Europeans often had the nasty shock, early in the slave trade, of discovering that the batch of slaves newly arrived on the plantation were often highly trained soldiers, far more capable of waging war than their nominal overlords.

The result was runaways and rebels whose cities and kingdoms in the American hinterland sometimes persisted even beyond the abolition of slavery.

The mixing of African and Indian populations made it impossible to distinguish one race from the other (though the newly racist Europeans tried to clarify the most absurdly elaborate distinctions).

Caribbean populations, for instance, look and are taken for "black," but in fact they are the descendants of Taino Indians as much as of Africans.

Indian and African resistance, then, was constant and often very successful, and the real history, long left out of the books (which were, after all, written by Europeans), is a complicated interplay among all the immigrant and native races.

If you don't know the information in 1493, you don't know the history of the world since Columbus. Period.

That came as a rude shock to me, I can tell you, because I was quite vain about the depth and breadth of my knowledge of history. This was a humbling read -- but an exciting one.

It was as if I had been living in an attic lighted only by a few rays that crept in through cracks, and then, suddenly, a light came on and I could see all the stuff that had been hidden from me.

Finally I had a clear idea of where I lived and what all the interesting bits of this and that came from and what they meant.

Not everybody loves history as much as I do. But most people only think they don't like history because they haven't read enough of it, or haven't read enough well-written history.

Don't read 1491 first -- good as that book is, 1493 is far more relevant and interesting to the modern reader. This is the story of how we got to the world that was so radically transformed even before our country was even thought of.

It's as if all of U.S. history took place in parentheses, and 1491 lets us see the earliest phases of the big story. Even the long section about the Jamestown colony gives the story from a perspective that clearly shows the robustness of the civilization that was already here before the Europeans arrived and, quite literally, wrecked everything -- growing tobacco in ways that drove out the Indians' far more sustainable, land-friendly farming.

It's not that our forebears "won" a competition with the Indians. It's more that by farming in European ways, we made it impossible for the native civilization to continue -- even though it was very advanced, and had sustained vast populations.

It's worth remembering that many of the crops that now feed the world were not discovered but rather developed by plant-breeding Indians in Mexico (maize) and Peru (potatoes and sweet potatoes).

And the slaves brought from Africa came, not as "ignorant savages," but as iron-working, war-fighting, nation-building citizens of civilizations that were just as "high" as the Europeans who carried them across the sea.

Add in the Asians who brought Chinese techniques and knowledge to the Americas, and adopted American crops and techniques to an astonishing degree, and you begin to get the real picture of history:

Not the relentless march of "superior" Europeans, but rather the continuous interplay of ideas and crops and products and skills from every part of the world to every other.

The "new world" in the title does not refer to the Americas. It refers to the globalized world of today, which replaced the separated, isolated, divided world that existed before Columbus, by sheer force of will and a lot of lying, induced Europe to stop tripping over America and set up shop here for the long haul.


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