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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 1, 2011

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


Hugo, Scorsese, Romney, and Gingrich

I had several reasons for wanting to see the new movie Hugo on Thanksgiving weekend -- and none of those reasons was its director, Martin Scorsese.

I wanted to see Hugo because it was based on Brian Selznick's wonderful graphic novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

On that score, I was not disappointed. Production designer Dante Ferretti did a superb job of bringing Selznick's lush black-and-white visuals to vivid life.

I wanted to see Hugo because the title role was played by Asa Butterfield, the young actor who was recently cast in the leading role in Ender's Game, the soon-to-be-filmed adaptation of my own book.

And on that score, I was pleased -- Butterfield can act, he is engaging and likeable, and I never got tired of watching him.

In fact, the whole cast of Hugo was wonderful, from Ben Kingsley as a toyshop owner to Helen McCrory as his former-actress wife; from cameos by Christopher Lee and Jude Law to the luminous performance of Chloë Grace Moretz as Hugo's young friend, fellow orphan, and partner in crime.

I even found that the loathsome, unfunny Sacha Baron Cohen, whose movies I would normally pay good money to avoid, actually emerges rather well from his performance.

No, I have to say that the responsibility for making this movie so very disappointing lies entirely with director Martin Scorsese.

The problem, you see, is that while Scorsese chooses wonderful actors for his movies -- and, because of his reputation and, perhaps, his personal charm, wonderful actors eagerly work with him even in tiny roles -- the fact is that Scorsese is absolutely awful with human beings on the screen.

His characters are all buffoons, cartoons, caricatures, or -- if Scorsese has a bit of mercy -- icons.

Sometimes, when an absolutely brilliant actor plays the role, like Robert deNiro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, the character sears our consciousness and lasts forever. No director can spoil the perfect reality and intensity of a deNiro performance.

Most of the time, though, Scorsese's ham-handed, obvious, clumsy, megaphone-level direction of actors results in utter emptiness or ridiculous failure.

One thinks of Gangs of New York, in which wonderful performers looked like the worst caricatures from Dick Tracy comics. Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, Henry Thomas -- these actors have never given such embarrassing performances before or since.

It takes the Scorsese touch to make good actors look that bad.

George Lucas does it by giving his actors truly awful lines to say. But Martin Scorsese does it by making every moment of his films so obvious, so labored, so tedious with the self-love of the director that there is never a natural moment in which you forget you're watching a movie.

Because Scorsese has a reputation as a genius, he, like Woody Allen, gets a complete pass from the critics. Every dreadful mistake, every moment of egregious vanity, every stupid decision by the director is praised as "genius" and explained away by slavish critics.

But folks, Scorsese is actually pretty awful when it comes to helping actors come across with audiences -- for the simple reason that there's only one person starring in Scorsese films, and that's himself, the director.

In vain do most actors struggle to create a believable character in front of Scorsese's lens, though some of the efforts are particularly noble and some, like DeNiro, actually succeed -- helping build Scorsese's semi-deserved legendary status.

Nowhere is this more painfully obvious than when Scorsese tries for comedy. In Hugo, Sacha Baron Cohen plays a crippled policeman. It is obvious -- oh so obvious -- that the movie wants us to think his attempts to chase Hugo through a train station are funny.

We are supposed to be amused when his leg brace jams and he has to manually free up the hinge.

But my reaction was initially to be appalled: What, are cripples supposed to be funny again? Will Scorsese next bring on a retarded person for us to laugh at?

Soon, though, I left "appalled" behind and was merely bored. Yeah, yeah, funny funny, we're all so amused, move on with the story.

Martin Scorsese has apparently never learned that humor happens along the way. Whenever we're shown that we're supposed to laugh, whenever we see the setup, it becomes steadily less funny, less interesting, because the film becomes a series of elaborately manufactured moments, which is the death of comedy.

Comedy has to come as an endless surprise. Scorsese has no idea how to bring this off. Woody Allen once knew how to do it; Scorsese never knew.

All this would have been tolerable if only Scorsese had realized the flaw in the graphic novel and repaired it for the movie.

The flaw is this: Partway through, the story loses its focus on Hugo and makes Hugo into a spectator, watching an aging film director "receive the recognition he deserves."

A good filmmaker would have realized that this turns the story into a history lesson, and would have kept it focused on the story of this engaging orphan, Hugo, who secretly continues his dead guardian's job of winding all the clocks in the train station, while stealing food to survive.

Hugo's story is a wonderful one, well worth watching.

But when you have a director as self-obsessed as Scorsese (and there's no shortage of them in Hollywood), it's almost inevitable that he would focus the whole film on the tale of redemption of the director-fallen-into-obscurity.

A moment's thought should have told him what a disastrous choice this would be for a movie. It turns half the movie into a lecture-with-illustrations on the history of film.

These vignettes are only wonderful if we have never seen a movie before. But we have. At that very moment we are watching a talking movie, with good special effects, good acting, color, and a coherent, carefully written script -- things that didn't exist in those early movies.

So the old movies we're shown in Hugo don't come across as revelatory and magical. They come across as naive, clumsy, and worth no more than a moment's glance.

If I were in a film class, then yes, this is exactly what I bargained for.

But I'm in a movie theatre, where I paid money for entertainment. For story and character. Not for lectures.

So the movie we were promised -- Hugo the orphan repairs a mechanical man to receive a message from his father -- turns into a movie we would never have paid to see: sad old forgotten movie director gets a round of applause.

Only a movie director would think he could switch us from caring about an orphan whose father was burned to death, to caring about an old man who is depressed because his career collapsed.

Dead father vs. career loss. Magical machines vs. endless self-pity. What idiot would choose to make the career-loss self-pity movie, when he has all the makings of the dead-father magical-machine movie?

This is as if you were making the brilliant movie Big, about a young boy thrust into the adult world, and then all of a sudden switched to tell the story of the arcade owner who once owned the fortune-telling machine!

Mark you, both stories were in the original book. It was a flaw that needed repair for the movie to work.

But when Robert Zemeckis tackled a seriously flawed novel, Forrest Gump, he and screenwriter Eric Roth saved the book by giving it focus and making it mean far more than novelist Winston Groom's series of empty jests.

Scorsese is no Zemeckis. Scorsese's reputation comes entirely from his badness: He is respected precisely because of his contempt for the concerns and interests of the mainstream audience. So even when his movies receive the tiny audiences they generally deserve, his career is undamaged -- commercial failure is a sign of his superiority!

While Zemeckis -- who created some of the most entertaining films of my lifetime (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Back to the Future, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) -- can be sidelined because a few genuinely experimental projects don't succeed as well as hoped (the Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol; Beowulf).

Hasn't anybody noticed that all of Scorsese's films are as ham-handed and overproduced and overdirected as Zemeckis's handful of bad films? Most who go to Hugo will see a needlessly boring film that, like a pod person, replaced a wonderfully charming one.

Am I the only one who sees that "needlessly boring" is the watchcry of Scorsese's career?

Or am I just the only one willing to say it in public?

I should have gone to the Muppet movie.

*

There are a lot of Republicans who really, really don't want Mitt Romney as their candidate.

I agree with them, for precisely opposite reasons.

The problem with the 2012 elections is that when you run polls that put "any Republican" against Barack Obama, "any Republican" wins easily.

But when you put a specific Republican currently running for the nomination against Obama, either Obama wins or it's a close thing.

In other words, the American public wants to get rid of Obama as President, but not if they have to replace him with any of the current field of Republicans.

That's what you get when the Republican Party is as ideologically driven as the Democratic Party.

A lot of Republicans hate Romney because he's Mormon, and they've been taught by their ministers that Mormons are an evil cult. This is absurdly false, but it's a serious factor in Republican politics.

They don't dare admit their Mormon-hatred openly, because the Republican Party needs the Mormon vote the way Democrats need and count on the Jewish vote -- a small and much-maligned religious minority, but one that votes as a bloc and contributes time and money far beyond their numbers.

So it's not even a surprise that when a secularist attacks Mitt Romney for being Mormon, he does it in terms that are shockingly similar to the longtime tropes of anti-semitism.

On 12 November, Harold Bloom published an essay on Mitt Romney that could have been written by the same guy who faked up the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

In case you want an education in bigotry by a sneering intellectual, here's the link: http://sn.im/BloomOnRomney . (Full URL:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/13/opinion/sunday/will-this-election-be-the-mormon-breakthrough.htm )

What Bloom hates about Romney isn't his religious beliefs -- he hates Baptists at least as much as he hates Mormons, mostly because Bloom hates all religions that actually make truth-claims.

No, what makes Bloom hate Romney is that Romney is rich, and the Mormon Church has tons of money, and therefore a Romney victory would mean a victory for the "plutocracy" -- government by the people with money.

Walter Russell Mead, about whom I know nothing, gave a ringing response to Bloom at The American Interest; if you care about the debate, here's the link: http://sn.im/MeadAnswersBloom . (Full URL: http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2011/11/28/nyt-slimes-romney/#comment-53170 )

I have only two reasons for bringing this up.

1. Romney probably won't be and shouldn't be the Republican nominee, because too many people on the Left and the Right just can't get over his being Mormon. So he'll be weak with the Republican base and easy to smear with independent voters.

Maybe he can overcome that and win anyway, but it's a gamble, and I don't know if America can afford to take such a chance right now.

2. I bring up Bloom's attack on Romney because I want to clear the record on Bloom's biggest point, which is that the Mormon Church has a lot of money.

It's true, and for one simple reason: Most Mormons actually live their religion. That means that most Mormons really don't smoke, drink alcohol, coffee, or tea, or use illegal drugs; most Mormons don't have sex outside of marriage; most Mormons actually attend church meetings; and, above all, most Mormons pay tithing.

A literal ten percent of their increase gets paid in to the Church. And since Mormons tend to end up in the middle class, regardless of where they started out, they mostly earn average or above-average incomes, and this means that at ten percent, the Mormon Church receives billions of dollars a year.

In most churches there is a paid clergy, and this money flows to a large extent into salaries for individuals.

So I understand why people assume that because the Mormon Church takes in a lot of money from the voluntary contributions of its members, somebody must be getting very rich, or that money must be flowing out to gain political power.

But we who actually pay that tithing and see how it's spent know the truth.

The Mormon "clergy" consists of every adult Mormon, male and female, who is willing to serve. We all teach, minister, preach, preside, and serve as clerks, factotums, chair-setter-uppers, chair-taker-downers, and all the other functions involved in running a church.

And none of us is paid.

At the very highest levels of the Mormon Church, the top authorities who devote their full time to church service can draw stipends for their support. Many of them don't, because they earned enough money in their previous secular careers that they don't need to.

But the ones who came from modest-paying professions do draw an income -- about the same as a middle-level business executive. Enough that their families can live normal middle-class lives. Period.

All the rest of those billions of dollars flow to the publicly stated purposes of the Mormon Church. Because we actually attend church and all of us minister in it, we need a lot of buildings. Those cost money. That's a huge expense.

We operate a few schools in the U.S. and Mexico, with paid teachers. Those are expensive, but the teachers and administrators aren't overpaid. Not even BYU's athletic coaches are overpaid.

The Mormon Church also publishes books and manuals and produces videos and ads to bring our message to the world. Those aren't cheap, but they don't make money -- they are, in effect, just preaching.

When you see a Mormon ad on television, it isn't asking you to donate money, it's asking you to live a better, more Christlike life, so you and the people you love can be happier.

The Mormon Church also contributes heavily to feeding the needy here and abroad; we cooperate with other churches in trying to reach out to better the material lives of poor people in every nation. We are at the forefront of disaster relief everywhere, and our church buildings, where we have them, are open to serve the public as shelters and distribution points in times of disaster.

That's where our money goes. Nobody gets rich from Mormon tithes. Period. The fastest way to get excommunicated from the Church is to dip your hand into the till. You don't steal the widow's mite.

And, most important, the Mormon Church does not use its money to try to gain political power. The Church does occasionally take a stand on moral issues, sometimes publicly, sometimes in private conversations with government leaders.

But we do not pay bribes or ransoms; the Church forbids the use of its meetinghouses, funds, and membership rolls in support of any party or candidate. Mormons are not told how to vote.

Keep in mind that while the Mormon Church began in the United States, today more Mormons speak Spanish than English. We're a worldwide church, and we wouldn't last long in most countries if we ever meddled in politics anywhere.

We would far rather have our missionaries on the streets in every city in the world than have a Mormon in the White House or at the head of any government.

So while you may dislike us or disagree with us, keep in mind that whatever wealth the Mormon Church has comes from the voluntary contributions of members who are hard-working, productive citizens; and it is all used (and audited!) for the legitimate building, educational, preaching, and relief purposes openly declared by the Church and participated in by all its members.

As for Mitt Romney, I think he's a good and decent man -- just like Obama. They are both faithful to their wives. They are both good fathers. They both think and care deeply about the issues facing America, and they both try to find a way to make America a better place to live.

But I'd rather not vote for either of them, because each of them defines the "good" of America in ways I strongly disagree with.

And, to my own disgust, I find myself right now leaning toward Newt Gingrich, a man who, as a human being, in my opinion does not measure up to either Romney or Obama.

But I think he'd make a better President than either. I can support his position on more issues than either of the others'. And as he (incredibly) rises in the polls, I think Gingrich is the kind of practical politician who can get good things done.

It wasn't Clinton who balanced the budget back in the 1990s. It was Newt Gingrich, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Until Gingrich engineered the impossible by winning Republican control of the Congress for the first time since the 1952 election, Clinton did nothing to balance the budget. Gingrich made a budget-balancer out of him.

Maybe, as president, Gingrich could do it again. The world is heading for a financial disaster so terrible that we can hardly imagine it. Governments made the disaster; but America also created the peace that allowed the world system of free trade to flourish, raising living standards everywhere.

There can be no new revelations about Gingrich. We already know every appalling thing about him, because the Left borked and palined him in the 1990s, and there's nothing left to uncover.

So if you Republicans actually want to get rid of Obama, stop looking at "true conservatives" -- they won't get the votes of independents and swing Democrats like me.

And don't nominate Romney, either -- he's too fragile and, being a Mormon, too easy to tear down and destroy. The Left will be so glad to do it.

I think Gingrich is your best choice, because despite his negatives, there is nobody smarter or more capable or with a better record of good government seeking the office of President right now.

He'll blow Mr. Teleprompter out of the water. And he'll know how to work with Congress after he's elected.

As a Mormon, I'll defend Romney's Mormonness. Mormons are perfectly normal, good people, and we deserve our chance to run for any office and make our normal share of stupid mistakes, just like anybody else.

But, partly because being Mormon makes him so vulnerable, Romney's not the best candidate in 2012. If Gingrich chooses him as his vice presidential nominee, I wouldn't oppose it; but Gingrich should be President.

That's my opinion -- as a Mormon, as a Democrat, and as an American who believes our country has a unique responsibility to choose strong, wise leaders for the free world.


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