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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 5, 2012

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


Hunger, Expectations, 1.6 Gallons Per Flush

I realize that with the largest non-holiday opening in film history, nobody has been waiting to hear my opinion of The Hunger Games.

But with many reviewers weighing in against the shaky handheld camera and saying bad things about the director, I really do need to point out that this film represents a long series of excellent if challenging choices, and it deserves its box office triumph.

You have to compare Hunger Games with the first film adapted from an even bigger-selling YA novel, Twilight. There was no way Twilight was not going to be a hit, at least on its opening weekend. They only had to have living actors in the parts and the very romantic audience was going to fall in love.

Oddly enough, in Twilight they cast the living actor as the undead vampire, and the dead actress as the supposedly living heroine. Go figure.

With Hunger Games, the casting was superb. Ignore the racists whimpering in their filthy little corner of cyberspace -- every role was brilliantly cast, following the racial directives of the book wherever race was specified -- and cast a black actor (Lenny Kravitz) in the racially unspecified role of Cinna, where he performed superbly.

Jennifer Lawrence (as Katniss Everdeen) and Josh Hutcherson as (Peeta Mellark) had to carry this movie -- and they were up to the task. However, they were not alone for a moment; every other actor did an excellent job.

Gary Ross, who has, in my opinion, a rather up-and-down directing record (Pleasantville was plastic, unfunny, and unwatchable; Seabiscuit unnecessarily tedious and slow-paced), made all the right choices here.

That handheld camera was annoying, at times, but because of it, the film was able to show acts of butchery and cruelty without ever forcing us to actually look at them.

This was the difference between PG-13 and R, and that was the difference between financial success and financial failure on a movie based on a YA novel.

The other way to get a PG-13 was to eviscerate the story and simply remove the violent actions. But this would have outraged the fans, not because they love cruelty, but because without the cruelty, there is no story.

Which brings me to the script. Notice that of the three credited writers, one is the author of the original book (Suzanne Collins), one is the director (Gary Ross), and the last is a prolific but undistinguished screenwriter (Billy Ray).

This suggests that the filmmakers actually regarded the presence of a living author as an asset instead of an annoyance. Clearly she was involved in the decision-making.

The result of this balance of writers was a script that worked as a movie, while still telling the complete story of the novel with all its moral and causal meanings intact.

In other words, it didn't just take the premise of the book or a couple of scenes and character names from the book and then make a stock Hollywood film out of them.

The Hunger Games instead is the story of the book.

They did make changes -- but they were dictated by the nature of the medium. The book took place almost entirely inside Katniss Everdeen's head, which is where film cannot go.

So information that Katniss simply knew would have been accessible to us -- except that the movie took the character of Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the host of the brutal reality show, and gave us his breathless explanations to his supposed television audience.

It was a brilliant writing choice. It allowed us to know whatever the book allowed us to know, right at the moment when we needed to know it.

The movie speeds things up and compresses them -- but that's what movies do (where are Scarlett O'Hara's two other children in the movie version of Gone with the Wind?).

What's really remarkable is the great faithfulness of this movie to the powerful story and to the truth of the characters. Why, it's almost as if the scriptwriters understood the story; almost as if the writer of the book was able to talk with the actors playing these characters and answer their questions about motivation.

But that is what becomes possible when the director is not afraid of the original writer.

Remember that the director is the most powerful figure in filmmaking (even though the movie is never better than the script). Some directors, terrified of losing their authority, destroy or remove any possible rival source of authority -- which includes the writer of the original book.

Other directors, confident of their own talents and unafraid of good ideas, welcome the original writer. Which, when the original writer is not an idiot and is willing to recognize the need for some changes, can be a good thing.

But of course, it is only possible when there's a climate of respect for the original material and for the person who created it. I salute the makers of The Hunger Games for having the courage and the cooperativeness to make room for excellence.

One thing worth pointing out -- and the reason why I was never able to read more than a few pages into the book -- is that the fundamental premise of the book is, in a word, silly.

It's a cliche in sci-fi, but it's also an embarrassment, because societies are far too complex to survive for long with the obvious contradictions of this society. They might seem to, but in fact there are always compensating mechanisms missing from this imaginary world.

There is no way that a society like this could exist for very long. Especially because at times it seems to have the economic size of a country at least the size of France, while at other times it seems to have a population about as large as that of Maryland.

As an adult science fiction novel, Hunger Games would probably have been given a more rigorous editing. The author would have been encouraged to make the world more believable.

But as a YA novel, there was no such effort, because most YA editors don't have the knowledge and experience in science fictional world-making that sci-fi editors have. This isn't a flaw or a criticism, it's just a fact.

YA readers are by definition naive; they will forgive weak world-making, especially because the book moves the reader quickly into personal dilemmas that are very immediate; the big-picture stuff is forced to the background.

The movie is able to recover more easily from these story flaws than the book, because nobody expects long explanations in a movie -- which is precisely where the book breaks down.

We expect not to understand everything in the deep background of a movie story; it's okay because we see everything and so we tend to believe it as long as the characters are believable.

There was only one key scene removed from the movie, and that is after the game is over, and two characters converse about their motives during the game.

The content of this scene is implied by the actors -- that is, their visible attitudes do not contradict it. And the movie doesn't need the revelation in that missing scene.

Instead, that missing scene is clearly going to be the opening scene of the sequel. That movie is going to need that scene as its fundamental premise. So even this change was a good one.

There were tough choices in costuming and hairstyles. It's very hard for audiences to deal with outlandish costumes and hairstyles; and yet if there's one thing recent history shows us, it's that there's no limit to how ridiculous rich people are willing to look in submission to fashion.

The Oscar red carpet proves that every year, and rich society ladies are even more pathetic victims of fashion.

So when we see absurd costumes and hairstyles, it is actually a very delicate line to tread -- too ridiculous and the look of the people detracts from the story; just ridiculous enough, and we realize that our own fashion absurdities are being parodied, along with the pretensions of the rich.

The creation of the game -- the way we are shown the propagation of creatures, the introduction of "helps" from sponsors, the way players are herded from one place to another -- is very creatively done, while being absolutely faithful to the game as it takes place in the book.

Since the game is the book, it would have been absurd if the film had made any changes in the rules. Yet I can easily imagine ignorant filmmakers treating the game as a toy that could be changed however and whenever an ignorant director or screenwriter chose to change it.

That would have been a disaster; but these filmmakers were too smart to meddle with rules that had been memorized by the fans of the books.

In short: This movie is far better than it needed to be. It is more faithful to the original than, say, Lord of the Rings; and the original, though not perfect, was well worth being faithful to.

The result is a movie that deserves its phenomenal financial success. Everyone involved with this film can be proud of their contribution; and surely the book's author and co-screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, can watch this movie with pride and satisfaction.

*

Masterpiece Theatre has just started running a miniseries version of Great Expectations that may turn out to be the best version ever.

Or maybe not.

Gillian Anderson as the half-mad recluse Miss Havisham is absolutely brilliant -- she brings to life both the delightful eccentricity and the deep, realistic pain that Charles Dickens wrote into the character. She plays the part younger than I've usually seen it played, and with more vulnerability -- and the result is ravishing. This is the best thing I've ever seen Anderson do.

And the actor who plays the child Pip in the first episode as a writer's and director's dream. This is a child who can act. He's not just cute and posable, he's real and deep and he understands his role.

The trouble is, I can't tell you who this child is, because the cast list on IMDB.com does not list "young Pip" or "child Pip" at all!

Instead, the only actor listed as "Pip" is Douglas Booth, who plays him as a grownup. And he is the reason why I wonder whether this miniseries will turn out to be as good as now seems possible.

That's because, unlike the child actor, Douglas Booth so far seems to be nothing more than cute and posable. His beestung lips and brooding expression seem to be about all he has to offer, and if that continues to be true, then the miniseries will end up disappointing us.

But since the thing most people remember most about Great Expectations is the story of young Pip, the escaped convict he saves, Pip's dictatorial sister and her loving husband Joe Gargery, and Miss Havisham and Estelle, it almost doesn't matter how the rest of the miniseries goes.

The Ethan Hawke version from 1998 was the opposite. Hawke could act; the child actor couldn't, and that broke the movie from the foundation.

So I think it's worth taking Masterpiece Theatre's bet and watching the remaining episodes of the series.

Not a bad followup to Downton Abbey, in my opinion.

*

When the enviro-nazis decreed that our toilets had to use less water per flush, a lot of us vowed that we would keep our old "wasteful" toilets going forever.

That's because it didn't take a lot of brains to realize that unless you eat dainty meals and poop delicately four times a day, those 1.28-gallon-per-flush (gpf) "WaterSense" or "Energy Star" specifications require that every time you flush, you have to flush twice. Or three times.

You don't save any water if you flush three times, every time.

Fortunately, those puritanical 1.28 gpf toilets represent an "ideal" of the enviro-nazi movement. In fact, the law allows new toilets to have up to 1.6 gpf, and that addition third-of-a-gallon makes all the difference.

Last fall we redid our downstairs half-bath, and there was no way around it -- we had to replace the toilet. Following research and recommendations from plumbers and contractors we trust, we installed the Kohler Comfort Height elongated 1.6 gpf toilet.

The tank is smaller and curved. Naturally, being full-sized humans, we didn't even consider installing anything other than the elongated seat.

The first important difference is that "comfort height." Toilet seat height standards were set many years ago, and Americans are taller now. When you're aging and your knees and back start to fade, getting up from that standard-height toilet can be painful -- even dangerous.

So the extra height of the toilet is a significant improvement.

But the real test was in the flush. And here the Kohler design passes with flying colors. The flush lasts a very short time, but it sweeps the bowl completely clear, first time, every time.

So far, no clogs. And with less water per flush, refill time is much shorter.

This doesn't mean it's perfect. After we changed every toilet in the house to the Kohler Cimmaron model, we had one toilet that seemed to flush extra-quick and required multiple flushes; the water in the bowl also didn't rise as high.

To us it seemed that the mechanism was working too rapidly, but that turned out to be an illusion. The mechanism was fine, but a hose was not working right; when the plumber fixed it, that toilet worked as perfectly as the others.

Because the mechanism is radically different from the old float-and-flap mechanism, it doesn't respond to ad hoc repairs as easily. Then again, after nearly five months, it hasn't needed any adjustments or repairs.

However, in order to work with so much less water, the shape of the bowl inside narrows the space considerably, and it's possible for some material to cling to porcelain areas that are not efficiently swept by the flow of the flush.

In other words, you might not need a plunger any more, but you will probably need a good toilet brush, and a second flush to carry away whatever you just wiped from the porcelain.

But that minor inconvenience, compared with the fact that this new design cannot plug up and overflow onto the bathroom floor, seems to me to be a perfectly acceptable trade.

When we changed the rest of the toilets in the house, we also tried something that friends of mine have been bragging about for years now: The magical toilet seat that washes your backside and then dries it.

The model they use is the Spaloo. What we tried was Kohler's own "C3®-200 elongated toilet seat with bidet functionality and in-line heater."

The idea is that, when you're done, instead of reaching for toilet paper, you pick up the remote control. Two user presets allow you to wash your underside from two different directions, with moving streams of water; when you fancy yourself well-cleansed, you then go for the stream of warm air to dry you.

Here are the facts: The water feels very, very good. The drying-off works perfectly well.

The heated seat certainly works, but we soon found that we didn't want the heating at all.

The nightlight feature, with motion detector, meant a cheery blue greeting during those middle-of-the-night shrinking-bladder visits that we old people put up with.

But there are problems. People's nether geography differs. Because of hemorrhoids, surgeries, or the vicissitudes of heredity, not everyone has the same contours. Also, any disposable matter that has not fully emerged to the surface cannot be reached by the water and will not be cleaned away.

The bottom line? Let's just say that you still want a well-stocked toilet paper dispenser nearby.

The worst problem, though, is that the bidet machinery uses up fully a third of the toilet seat space, so that it converts an elongated toilet seat into a rather smaller-than-usual seat.

The benefits of the bidet, which is not 100-percent effective, could not make up for the discomforts of a too-small seat, which is all that was left. So the bidet seat -- which cost more than three times as much as the toilet under it -- has been moved to a different bathroom.

For many people -- perhaps most -- the bidet seat might well be the most pleasant thing to happen to the bathroom since the invention of indoor plumbing. But not me.

But we're completely happy with the Kohler Cimmaron Comfort-Height toilets we installed.


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