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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 31, 2013

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


Argo, Silver Linings, Boneyards, Parody Art

This year is the first time I actually got to vote in the SAG Awards -- the voting by members of the Screen Actors Guild for the best performances by individuals and ensembles of actors.

That's because my single off-camera line in the movie of Ender's Game -- a pure vanity bit just so the author of the book has a sort of cameo in the film -- won me the right to pay the dues and become a member of the actors' union.

Even though I have no delusions about my future as an actor, an old theatre student like me can't pass up a legitimate opportunity to get my union card. Now, when I direct local amateur plays and musicals, I can legitimately claim that I'm a "professional" actor leading the company.

But, unlike some others with a similar claim, I won't be joining my actors on stage -- my inability to reliably memorize dialogue keeps me directing and writing, while others do the acting!

Anyway, this year's acting awards are in -- and I'm happy to observe that members of the acting union are just as prone to swoon over certain kinds of glamor, and misjudge the difficulty and quality of acting performances.

It certainly was refreshing to hear some genuinely surprised and humble actors respond to receiving some of the awards. When Ben Affleck's film Argo -- which he acted in and also directed -- won the "best ensemble" award, it was clear that he really hadn't thought his film would win.

But as an actor-director, Affleck had been extraordinarily generous with his fellow actors, keeping his own role in perfect proportion and giving actor after actor his or her "moments." The result was a company that truly deserved an award for ensemble acting -- a film about many different people instead of a story shaped to show off one or two high-priced stars.

Argo would be a credible best-picture winner. While this film about the rescue of six Americans from the Iranian hostage crisis did bend history a little, mostly to soup up the barely-made-it getaway sequence near the end, it was far truer to history than, say, Game Change -- and far more generous to the real people it portrayed.

In fact, that's one of the pleasures of Argo. While it recognizes that America had a history of messing with Iran in ways that Iranians had a right to resent deeply, it does not make the CIA or the US government the bad guys or a joke.

Rather, Argo treats everyone fairly, making nobody perfect but also making nobody absurdly bad or stupid. Everybody's doing their best to do what they think is the Right Thing.

One reason Argo is especially popular with actors, of course, is that it's a movie about Hollywood, as well as being about historical events. The F-word involved in a running gag about the name of the fake movie that the CIA is pretending to make will offend some, but I'm afraid I found it irresistibly funny. It's not often that I actually like the use of rough language in a film, but this is one of the rare exceptions.

For a long time after Ben Affleck and Matt Damon won their writing Oscar for shamelessly ripping off the climax of Ordinary People in Good Will Hunting, it looked like it was Matt Damon who was having the great career, as Affleck kept scoring tabloid covers while starring in bad movies.

But with his small role in He's Just Not That Into You, he started playing a new kind of character: Not a romantic lead, not an action hero, but something relatively rare in Hollywood films: A nice guy. A decent, reliable person. A grown-up.

How many people write movies about people like that?

But Ben Affleck can play them. More to the point, he can direct movies about them, and help other actors to play them as well. This is a rare talent. Most actors and directors are drawn to bizarre characters. Certainly Oscars are likely to go to actors playing people suffering from melodramatic angst.

That's not to say you can't have a great movie about melodramatic angst.

For instance, Silver Linings Playbook is in many ways a remake of the brilliant A Woman Under the Influence -- a person gets out of a mental institution and the audience sees that the family he or she returns to is at least as insane.

There are plenty of "mad scenes" -- oh, how actors love those! But it's not the mad scenes that make Bradley Cooper's and Jennifer Lawrence's performances so unforgettably good.

Anybody can rant and yell. What's hard is to make a character real and vulnerable, what's hard is to show them taking responsibility and growing up, because that's all about restraint and control.

So even actors voting for the SAG award sometimes miss the point. Jennifer Lawrence won (and gave a marvelously endearing and restrained acceptance speech, unlike Clare Danes's sadly self-satisfied one) for a portrayal full of rage and crying.

But her character works because of the slyness, the vulnerability, the hunger, the joy. Few actors can play these.

If Silver Linings Playbook had won the acting ensemble award, it would have been a perfectly credible choice, though unlike Argo this is definitely a star-centered movie. From Robert De Niro as Bradley Cooper's dad to Chris Tucker as a fellow lunatic to Anupam Kher as Cooper's sports-mad shrink, the supporting roles are given a chance to shine.

The heart of the movie, though, is the very much unflamboyant Jacki Weaver as the mom. She is the one who actually drives the plot, first by getting her son out of the mental institution, then by manipulating events to help him get over his obsession with the wife who betrayed him.

Her luminous performance probably won't win the Oscar any more than it won the SAG award -- but Jacki Weaver provides the foundation on which all the other performances rest. The leading actors are terrific -- but she is the bright background that sets them off to such good effect.

Silver Linings Playbook tries to deal honestly with mental illness, but in the end it can't quite make up its mind. Is Cooper's character truly bipolar and obsessive? Or is he a person with manageable problems who is pushed over the edge by the outlandish provocations of his unfaithful wife?

The first half of the movie asserts the former; the second half, the latter.

It is true that in other countries, good results are often obtained by guiding bipolar people into a normal home life and providing them with stable relationships.

However, good results are rarely obtained by providing them with an even crazier person to take care of.

This is fiction, of course, and so you can always say, "This time things worked out despite the unorthodox "treatment." But the filmmakers are asserting a higher level of reality for this story, and so I guess I wanted to see Cooper's character a little less out-of-control -- angry rather than crazy -- at the beginning, or a little less fully-in-control at the end.

But let's give this film credit for dealing with issues of madness with far more sense and greater adherence to reality than is normal in storytelling. Most of the time madness is a plot contrivance or a maguffin; here at least the attempt is made to tell the truth.

Surely we can allow Silver Linings Playbook as much leeway with reality as we give, say, Argo.

Other contenders for the Best Ensemble SAG award were also worthy. Les Miserables did a gorgeous job of making even chorus parts individual and real, and this is a great movie that looks even better on home video than it does on the big screen, for Anne Hathaway's performance is not over the top when her face is not eight feet high on the screen.

In fact, Les Miserables looks better and better to me, despite the Santa Claus absurdity, as I see it again. Unlike Lord of the Rings, whose falseness to Tolkien's original becomes less and less bearable with each reseeing, Les Miserables, as a movie, is more faithful to Victor Hugo's original novel than the stage production -- while still leaving out the voluminous overwriting that is typical of 19th-century fiction, both literary and popular.

Hugh Jackman's transformations are not just makeup -- like Ben Affleck, he is capable of playing far more than suffering and rage. As with Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman is at his best when playing the grownup, responsible portion of his role; this is the hardest thing to do as an actor, and Jackman is brilliant at it.

That the performers in Les Miserables achieve brilliant reality while singing only makes their achievement all the more remarkable (as also that of their director, Tom Hooper).

I'm afraid that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has no chance of awards, though it, too, brought together an ensemble of wonderful actors in well-balanced parts. Was it the best picture of the year? No; but it was very good, and is worth seeing more than once; the exuberant performance of Dev Patel is one of the most likeable ever on screen.

I wish Daniel Day Lewis weren't such a cold actor, and didn't look so mask-like in every clip of Lincoln that I've seen; I wish Steven Spielberg's track record of storytelling dishonesty didn't make me assume that Lincoln butchers both history a Lincoln's known character in order to fake up some false dilemma.

It's hard for me to work up any desire to see the movie or Daniel Day Lewis's performance. I probably will, though, before Oscar time. After all, maybe it's the Spielberg of Empire of the Sun who directed Lincoln, instead of the Spielberg of all his other movies.

Meanwhile, as I think back over the year's movies, I still keep coming back to Looper as the most brilliantly written script, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World as my most emotionally satisfying experience in the theater this year.

So many admirable films; so many really crappy ones; but they all got made, didn't they! That's an award in itself, that somehow a script, however weak or strong, got the right people attached to it, got the money behind it, and made its way into the theaters, for good or ill.

Though there are bound to be some absolutely brilliant projects that just can't get made, because Hollywood is such a ludicrously nonsensical place to do business, there are thousands and thousands of truly hideous projects that the Hollywood sieve has prevented us from being afflicted with.

Though some of those make it through, too. Cloud Atlas. I rest my case.

*

I've already reviewed Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Retrieval Artist series, with its powerful combination of science fiction, mystery, and character-centered storytelling.

She has another series that began with Diving into the Wreck. From the title alone, I had assumed (wrongly) that this was some kind of underwater story. Having had my fill of underwater stories when I novelized The Abyss, I didn't look at this other series until I picked up Boneyards.

That was a mistake. Boneyards, well into the series, requires the reader to play catch-up to an off-putting degree. I soon realized that I needed to back up and read the immediate predecessor, City of Ruins, first.

Good choice. The premise of this series is that a woman known mostly as "Boss" heads a crew of space divers. No water involved -- and no gravity. But like salvage divers in ocean waters, these space divers, wearing suits in order to survive, plunge into and explore the hulks of long-lost, abandoned, and wrecked spaceships.

Especially they relish exploring the relics of the ancient, semi-legendary Fleet, which five thousand years ago had made its way through the region of the galaxy where humans live.

The Fleet was itself piloted by humans -- people so much like the ordinary run of people that they could interbreed, though a few small differences have evolved. Now long gone, the Fleet had a technology that Boss and her crew can't understand.

But the contemporary Empire wants very much to recover the Stealth Tech that the ancient Fleet had, which is far superior to anything available today.

This is the situation in which City of Ruins begins. Boss has been engaged to explore, not a space wreck, but an underground ruin where some kind of ancient technology occasionally erupts with fatal effect on surface habitations.

Having read City of Ruins, I was then able to read Boneyards with far more pleasure. Boneyards, however, is a book marred by a couple of mistakes. For one thing, the titular Boneyards -- a vast collection of ancient ships protected by the Fleet's shielding -- isn't even mentioned until near the end of the book, and is not even penetrated by our heroes at books' end.

The serious mistake, however, is the needlessly convoluted structure that seeks to simultaneously keep us emotionally involved in a present story while withholding from the most vital information from a twenty-year-old story whose puzzles don't unravel until near the end.

This despite the fact that the entire story is known to one of the main characters, nicknamed "Squishy," from the start. If Rusch had chosen to tell us Squishy's story in time order, everything else would have been clearer and much more enjoyable to read.

But such are the decisions writers make, and then have to live with. This is nowhere near as damaging to the book as the decision to tell Hunger Games in first person present tense, which added nothing to a good story, but made the sequels increasingly awkward to write.

The combination of first person and present tense is so false and contrived that one never really gets used to it the way readers can eventually accommodate either first person or present tense.

One conjures up the image of a hero dictating the story in highly literary language while actually going through the adventures.

Or else one has to imagine that the hero would, after the fact, choose to tell the story in a ridiculously literary way -- though the character has no particular literary bent.

But Kristine Kathryn Rusch would never do that.

Oh, wait. Unlike the Retrieval Artist series, these books do use a weird present tense, which is constantly annoying and adds absolutely nothing. Why? Rusch knows better than this, and has proven it many times over. I guess sometimes writers have to succumb to the temptation to prove they can "play with the big boys."

Unfortunately, the "big boys" -- i.e., the academic-literary crowd that love weird tense-and-voice combinations -- are idiots, who love to make their work harder to understand, under the illusion that if your work can't be understood without study, people will study it.

Wrong. Volunteer readers have no obligation to study needlessly difficult work. The only people who enjoy difficulty for its own sake are elitists whose pleasure in the book derives largely from feeling superior to people who don't like reading needlessly difficult fiction.

In other words, such techniques are really a sort of initiation hazing. If you claim to admire such techniques, you're In The Club. That the club exists only in order to exclude people who choose not to waste time on the hazing rituals seems unnoticed.

Rusch is such a good storyteller that despite the hazing, despite the out-of-order storytelling, these are well worth reading. That's because Rusch is just too good a writer to surrender completely to college literary training -- she still fulfills the duty of the storyteller to provide vicarious memories that illuminate the lives of the readers.

What can I say? When a story has real substance and the storyteller has a powerful talent, even their bad choices can't stop readers from receiving and enjoying their fiction.

In Rusch's case, while the pieces of the story in Boneyards are told out of order, each piece is so intrinsically interesting that readers are able to hold the whole thing in memory until the puzzle is complete. The result is that I stayed up late to finish both books, and felt well-rewarded for having done so.

Rusch remains one of the best sci-fi writers working today -- and since she's still young, or at least younger than me, I look forward to many more works from her. Especially if she stops attaching these useless literary fobs to her work and instead continues to make the stories themselves ever deeper and richer -- as few writers are capable of doing, but Rusch most definitely is.

*

I suppose most people don't know the work of the French academic painter Bouguereau (BOO-guh-ROE). But enough do, especially within the art world, that it's worth parodying.

The point with parody is that you have to be very familiar with the original work even to know that a joke is being told. When you're making fun of something unavoidable in the culture, like certain ads or corporate logos, then you can count on everybody recognizing what you're mocking.

But parodies of fairly obscure works have to be presented to people who love the original -- who else would recognize the source?

The website Bouguereau Remastered deals with this problem by using, as a kind of table of contents, a set of original images -- the Bouguereau masterworks themselves.

When you click on an image, you are then taken to a series of parodies, each more outlandish than the ones before. For instance, when you click on the famous painting Douleur d'amour, which depicts a nude woman bent over a pedestal, grieving, as a baby Cupid weeps beside her, the parodies progress like this:

First, someone has photoshopped in a baby Bacchus from another masterwork, drinking from what seems to be a jug of moonshine. Another way to deal with grief, presumably.

Then you get the woman and Cupid dressed in denims; then in a tennis outfit, so now she seems to be exhausted after winning her match (she has a medal).

The next parody has her upright, singing into a microphone; the pedestal has become an amp and speaker. Then there are two Christmas versions, with her and the baby dressed in Santa outfits.

The next has her in a snowstorm; then the pedestal becomes a clothes-drier (apparently she's waiting to get dressed until her clothes are dry). Then it's a television and she's holding a rabbit-ears antenna. Another has her grieving over a Gulf gas pump with a sign saying "No gas today."

She is transformed into a turtle in one parody; in another, she is concentration-camp thin. Then she's a cow. Then soldiers are discovering the Cupid weeping inside a cupboard as they hold up a picture, showing that they're searching for the nude woman.

Then there are versions with cowboy outfits, or with her as a Terminator-style robot with skin covering only parts of her machinery. She's a lizard, or a flag-wrapped patriotic woman with an eagle in place of the baby.

And that's a partial list of parodies of only one of the Bouguereau originals. You can easily amuse yourself for half an hour at this site.

But the people who created these parodies must have spent far longer than that in creating them! Apparently they thought it was worth the work. And some of them are amusing enough that I think they're certainly worth the click!


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