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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 26, 2012

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


The Artist, Winter World

Usually, the fact that a movie is being Oscar-buzzed for "best picture" is a pretty good sign that I'm going to hate it.

That's because "best" is such a fluid term. Does it mean that you had a great time watching it? That you expect to buy the DVD and watch it again?

Or does it mean you intend to recommend it to your friends? This can be a two-edged sword. On the one hand, you're willing to openly commit to your approbation of the film. On the other hand, what are your friends going to think of the fact that this was a film that you recommended?

I'm not immune to these dangers. I remember after I touted The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as one of the best science fiction movies of all time, and one of the best films of the year, I went back to see it again with my wife. My review had already appeared in the Rhino, and as we were leaving a woman coming down the stairs behind us said, loudly, "That is the worst movie I ever saw."

She sounded outraged, and I was reasonably certain that she recognized me and was letting me know just how much she resented my review.

Never mind that in my review I warned people that it wasn't for everyone, that it was sometimes confusing. I still felt responsible for her disappointment.

Social pressure works on all of us -- we don't feel good when the tribe rejects us. So when Oscar voters think of committing to a film as "best picture," they take into account -- whether they mean to or not -- what their friends think about the movie.

When William Goldman wrote about Broadway reviewers who seem to hate everything (for instance, one who declared in a certain year that no play deserved to be named the "best"), he explained that they were really afraid of having someone look at them, sneer, and say, "So that's the kind of thing you like."

If you don't admit to liking anything, nobody can disdain your taste.

Now, there are film people who form their own opinions and to heck with everybody else. And there are film people who have not lost contact with what ordinary viewers enjoy. These are the filmmakers most likely to make great films -- either because they make films for love, or because, when they make films for money, they at least know what the public actually likes.

Enough Oscar voters are swayed by the need to impress other jaded film people that it's common for the biggest Oscar buzz to surround films that ordinary people will enjoy. Comedies rarely win, unless they ridicule ordinary Americans.

When a film with genuine popular appeal does contend for the awards, it's usually because there's some aspect to the film that gives cover to those who would otherwise be ashamed. As Good As It Gets, for instance, overcame the romantic-comedy "curse" by having one character suffer from Tourettes syndrome and another be a beaten-up gay man.

Which all leads to this question: Why is The Artist getting so much Oscar buzz when it's really a sweet and simple story of love and devotion? (And I'm not just talking about the chauffeur and the dog.)

The answer is simple: The Artist is also a black-and-white silent movie.

Ordinarily this would be the kiss of death. We don't watch silent movies anymore.

Color films existed side-by-side with black-and-white for decades; 3D, with luck, will occupy a niche without ever replacing the flat (and much more visually realistic) films that most of us prefer.

But when well-synchronized sound came along, silent movies were simply gone. Erased. As soon as it became possible, we needed to hear our actors talk.

But here's the gimmick about The Artist. It's a film that shadows Singin' in the Rain; it's a comedy about the end of the silent film era and the need to adapt to sound. So to have it be a silent film is actually quite wonderful. And arty. But in a completely accessible way.

The director plays with the lack of talking. There are sound effects, now and then -- for instance, inside a dream sequence -- and at the end, we do hear the voices of some of the actors. Mostly, though, the film abides by the rules and conventions of the silent film era, and does so with such grace that a contemporary audience is held spellbound.

It helps greatly that the two lead actors, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo are exquisitely charming. They have faces; they don't have to mug for the camera (though, when necessary for the story, they do). They win our hearts without our hearing what they say.

There's also all kinds of obvious and heavy-handed symbolism, which makes it easy for arty types to love the film. (Subtlety usually sails right over the heads of the arty.) But we civilians can ignore that, or enjoy it, as we choose -- the story is strong enough not to need it, and it doesn't get in the way.

That is why I heartily recommend The Artist for the whole family. Even if you have non-readers in your crew, the title cards are few enough that it won't hurt for someone to whisper the words.

The Artist is funny. Warm. Tragic. Loving. You'll have a great time. And you won't have to apologize to your arty friends.

*

The message by now is clear: When it comes to presidential politics in the Republican Party, Mormons need not apply.

Oh, yes, I've heard the absurd charges "explaining" the grimly determined opposition to Romney.

"He's a flip-flopper," they say -- but it's not true. When he's changed his mind, he's explained why, and it wasn't for political advantage.

Besides, the other main charge against him is that he isn't a flip-flopper, as proven by the fact that he hasn't repudiated Massachusetts health care.

Lately his Republican opponents have attacked him because -- get this -- he saved businesses by introducing sound practices like cutting unnecessary people from the payroll. In other words, Mitt Romney shouldn't be the Republican candidate because he's a successful businessman who knows how to make the tough decisions that keep companies afloat and provide good returns for investors.

Isn't that what America needs? Of course it is. Romney may not be the only or even the best candidate, but this is no reason for Republicans to reject him.

Yet Gingrich and others get traction from an anybody-but-Romney campaign. They openly ally against him in a way that I've never seen before in either party -- as if the worst thing that could happen is a Romney candidacy.

Why? There is nothing about Romney that could not be embraced by most non-lunatic Republicans, nothing to make him an "anybody-but" candidate -- except that he's a Mormon.

Nobody dares to say so openly because Mormons are, to the Republican Party, what Jews have long been to the Democratic Party -- a cash cow that can be taken for granted most of the time.

Like Jews, Mormons deliver a solid, decisive vote in some states -- and a lot of money and party workers in many of the others.

If Mormons became evenly divided between the parties, it would be harder to put together the numbers for a Republican presidential victory.

So the Republicans have to play the same double game with Mormons that the Democrats have long played with Jews, African-Americans, and Hispanics -- do nothing for them, while still managing to hold on to their vote by pretending that this is "their" party or that the other party is the devil.

Why do the two big parties get away with this double-gamesmanship? Partly, I think, because there's nowhere else to go.

It's time for a new party with a rational basis for existing -- one that provides a home for the disenfranchised.

For instance, why were Mormons the main scapegoats of the Left for the passage of the marriage-protection initiative in California? The decisive bloc of votes for the proposition came from blacks and Hispanics -- but Democrats didn't dare punish them for their morally conservative position on family life, because without blacks and Hispanics the Democratic party couldn't get any electoral votes anywhere.

(And where were the evangelical Republicans whose dread of Mormons now drives the anti-Mitt movement? It's fine for Mormons to take the lead when there's a risk, but apparently it doesn't earn us a seat at the table.)

Right now, wouldn't it be nice to have a party that actively stood for traditional marriage and against no-questions-asked abortion; for fiscal restraint and low taxes even when in office; for a strong national defense even when we're not actively at war; against the proliferation of guns, against a death penalty that is so often wrongly applied; for a rational and fair immigration policy; and against discrimination on the basis of race, language, and religion?

You know, a moderate party in the great American tradition. A party that isn't held hostage by a lunatic fringe of virulent haters. The kind we don't have right now.

In recent years both parties have had control of both houses of Congress and the White House, yet during its time of dominance neither party made any real progress toward any of these things, though between them they offered lip service to all of them.

I think of the great realignment of American politics in 1856, when the Republican party was formed out of the remnants of the Whig party in order to try to break the back of the pro-slavery Democratic party.

We need a new party now at least as much as we did then.

Is it going to happen? No. It would make too much sense.

Anyway, when people ask me why I don't become a Republican, one good answer is to point to the viciousness of the anti-Mitt campaign. I'm not pro-Mitt (though as Gingrich reveals his character, I'm moving that way) -- but I hate the thought that in America, Mormon children can't dream of growing up to be president.

It would be fascinating to see what would happen if Mormons simply sat out this election, lifting not a finger and spending not a minute or a dime in support of a Republican party that is so open in their desperate search for anybody-but-the-Mormon.

Obama's a lousy president; but a Republican replacement who got his party's nomination by a campaign that relied on hatred of a religious minority would be worse. For everyone.

Maybe the Republicans can win without a speck of Mormon support.

Maybe not.

Let's find out.

*

It's not often that I warn people away from a bad book, on the theory that silence is the cruelest review, but I'm pleased to make an exception in the case of Winter World, by Bernd Heinrich.

The premise of the book is very promising -- which is why I bought it. The idea is to explore the way the plant and animal kingdoms deal with the intense cold of winter. After all, it's obvious that animal life originated in a tropical climate -- why else do our bodies maintain themselves at a sultry 99 degrees in order to function properly?

But if this book is about anything, it's about science, and that means that if we are to trust anything the author says, he has to get his science right.

So here's what came up within the first half-hour of listening to the audiobook. First, the Heinrich made a weird statement that sounded as if he thought that only the northern hemisphere had winters.

Then I realized that what he really meant was the temperate zone in both hemispheres. After all, winter is a meaningless concept in the tropics, just as summer is more wish than fact in the arctic and antarctic.

I would have forgiven him for this imprecision, but then he actually said that life depends on the fact that because ice is lighter than water, it floats; if it were heavier, it would sink to the bottom and all oceans and lakes would soon become solid ice except for a thin sun-warmed layer.

Did you spot the howlingly stupid mistake? Ice is not lighter than water. Molecule for molecule, it weighs the same. No, ice floats because when water freezes, it forms a crystalline structure that becomes rigid but takes up more space than water in its liquid form.

This makes ice less dense than liquid water. It's not a matter of weight -- if you take a pound of water and freeze it, it still weighs a pound. But it will float, because it displaces more liquid water than it contains. This is not a trivial distinction. This is basic science.

So either this writer is hopelessly ignorant about science, or he is so contemptuous of his readers that he thinks we won't understand or care about such distinctions.

Then came the killer. He gave the standard worshipful bow to global warming -- I expect this in every book now, from history to psychology to anthropology, because bad science proliferates when it supports a political agenda.

But this author did not accept the standard premise of global warming -- that however slight the change in global atmospheric carbon might be, and no matter how weak carbon dioxide is as a greenhouse gas (compared to water vapor and methane), human emissions might be making a slight difference in global temperature.

Even the most rabid global-warming alarmists who are still honest scientists dare make no bolder claim than this.

However, Winter World actually asserts that human-induced global warming is already so severe that it is holding off an overdue ice age!

What?

If this were true, then almost all of us would be united in trying to pump as much carbon into the atmosphere as we could, because there is no global warming scenario that is anywhere near as terrifying as the onset of another ice age.

But even global warming alarmists know that no amount of human-induced global warming could fend off an ice age.

By now it was clear to me that this writer wasn't careless or even contemptuous. Heinrich is ignorant of the very science he is supposedly informing us about.

Alas, that means the whole book is worthless -- in order to sort out the nonsense, I would have to already know more about the subject than the author did.

In such a case, why in the world should I -- or anyone -- devote hours to reading it?

Too bad. I wish a competent person would write a book about the winter adaptations of our mid-latitude flora and fauna. It would be fascinating.


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