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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 7, 2013

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


Spring, Giants, Escazú, Blind Beggar

How confused the vegetation around us can be! Everyone knows that spring begins at the spring equinox, either 21 or 22 March. Except the plants.

Our first daffodils (or "jonquils" when I feel like my life is taking place inside a Tennessee Williams play) bloomed around the first of January. We've had snow and ice since then.

Yet the daffodils still look perky -- and unapologetic for their early arrival.

But perhaps they can be forgiven for their confusion. After all, we consider June 21st, the summer solstice, to be the beginning of summer. Yet the term "Midsummer Day" also refers to the summer solstice.

Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream takes place on that magical shortest night of the year.

Which is it? The first day of summer, or midsummer?

The answer to that minor puzzlement came to me as I read Peter Ackroyd's wonderful Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors.

Ackroyd's book contains linear history, one thing after another; but it also has chapters that break off as separate essays on different themes that ran unchanged for many centuries -- the life of the peasantry; the development of town life; the nature of war; crime and punishment.

One of his chapters was on the seasons of the year. In the days before astronomy, our English forebears divided the seasons according to what was happening in the world around them.

(And no matter what country or continent your ancestors came from, English culture is the seedbed of most aspects of American culture, with all other cultures contributing as America grafted them in. As Americans, we partake of them all -- so we really do have "English forebears" even if not a single ancestor ever set foot there.)

Summer was the growing season. Autumn was harvest. Winter was for sowing next year's crop, and slaughtering and preserving whatever meat animals you couldn't afford to provender for the months until new crops and fodder became available. And spring was all about preparing for summer.

So winter began on Michaelmas -- the 29th of September -- and ran through Christmas, whose twelve days ended on Epiphany, the 6th of January. November was "blood month," when all that slaughtering was done.

The Monday after Epiphany was called "Plough Monday" because that was when the farmers got back out into the fields and started breaking up the soil for spring-planted crops.

Summer began on Hocktide, the second Monday and Tuesday after Easter -- a floating holiday, so the official beginning of summer could vary from year to year. But it is precisely that time of year when we start to feel that spring has really arrived, because there are no more freezes or frosts.

Summer then ended on Lammas, the first day of August, and autumn officially began. Midsummer night was not exactly on the solstice -- it came on St. John's Eve, 23 June; close enough.

In most places in America, the first of August is the hottest time of year -- the peak of summer (in California, it's the end of August) -- but the English calendar reflected the work you had to do, and as the days grew shorter and crops became ripe, it was harvest time.

You'll notice that these seasons are marked by dates in the Christian church calendar. But I suspect that they were tied to those dates after the fact; that the clergy, who kept the calendar, saw what work was being done and then attached the approximate dates on the calendar.

These seasons were not of equal length -- but what law says that "seasons" have to be?

In fact, it's the astronomical "seasons" that are absurdly disconnected from our lives. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, spring is underway in January most years. There's also plenty of chance for snow and ice -- but the plants know that as the days get longer, it's time to put out buds.

Sometimes another freeze kills those first buds; so the plants just squeeze out more. Any plant that doesn't take advantage of all possible growing days, and any plant that is so tender that a freeze is going to kill it, isn't going to thrive as a native in a climate like ours.

When did we decide to let the astronomers coopt the names of seasons? The longest day of the year was and should be "midsummer," not the first day of summer -- it has already been shirtsleeve warm for months by then.

As far as astronomy is concerned, there are no seasons -- seasons only have meaning on the surface of an inhabited planet, of which we have only one example. Seasons are not the business of astronomy.

Maybe we came to rely on astronomers to define seasons when we first realized that south of the tropics, seasons were flipped, and it took astronomers to explain it.

Maybe we just want to feel some connection to "magical" astronomical events -- certainly our forebears were aware of the sky. Midsummer came at the one solstice, Christmas near the other, and Easter is roughly pegged to lunar events around the spring equinox.

Let's just admit that calendaring is pretty arbitrary. But by any rational definition, in North Carolina spring comes earlier than it does in Michigan, and in neither place does the equinox have anything to do with it. The plants and animals tell us when it's spring.

Spring is still cold, but life is beginning anew. Summer is when the jackets come off and stay off. Fall is when the leaves turn. Winter is when the trees are bare and things haven't started reblooming.

That's what those words mean to us, when we say, "Wow, spring is coming awfully early this year." First, it is never early -- it comes when it comes. And second, the astronomical events are only tangentially tied to our seasons.

Altitude, latitude, position relative to oceans and prevailing winds and the Gulf Stream: All of these have a huge influence on the actual seasons. It's true that length-of-day in the middle latitudes is the root cause of having seasons at all; but that's only the roughest approximation. All the details come from these other causes.

In short: It's been spring around here for a month or more. The jonquils said so. The yellowing finches say so. Asking astronomers whether it's spring or not is like using a telescope to watch the traffic while you drive.

Get that thing out from in front of your face and look around you.

*

Jack the Giant Slayer is only a disappointment if you expected anything. I didn't, and so I enjoyed it well enough -- I wasn't outraged. But then, I wasn't outraged at John Carter of Mars, either.

I save my outrage, apparently, for pretentious twaddle that thinks it's "art" and is created by people who think they're smarter than everybody else.

Nobody involved in Jack the Giant Slayer thought they were smart, or tried to be smart.

I wish they had, though. First, they couldn't decide if they were telling the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk" or of "Jack the Giant-Killer." Nor did they have a clue what the character of "Jack" is supposed to be.

"Jack" is the great trickster character of English folktales. (But notice how recent his name is -- it comes from the French Jacques, which suggests that the name was applied to the trickster character after the Norman conquest.)

The idea of Jack is that he wins out by a combination of clever trickery and dumb luck. He's not terribly honest -- see a magic singing harp, steal a magic singing harp. And he's not very clever -- trading a cow for "magic" beans?

Yet he wins.

But the writers of the movie didn't trust the Jack material. Instead, they had to follow the film school formulas. Therefore, Jack couldn't be dumb; they go to elaborate lengths to show why he wasn't dumb to "trade" his horse and cart for a handful of beans.

Nor could he win by stumbling luck or trickery. The only "trick" was putting a beehive into the helmet of a sleeping giant.

(But if they could raise the faceplate of the helmet in order to put in a beehive, then they could have raised the faceplate and jabbed a knife into the sleeping giant's brain. You can do anything as long as your enemy sleeps that heavily.)

Most of the time, though, Jack is pretty useless. His mad dash to give warning accomplished almost nothing. The old nag of a horse turns out to be a champion racer and jumper. Fake movie time-stretching allowed him to get out the magic bean at the end.

Everybody was clean and the peasants were rich. Jack and his uncle lived in a merchant's house from that period, not a peasant farmer's hut.

I can just imagine that in story meetings, if somebody brought up these ridiculous anachronisms, the invariable answer was, "Look, it's a fairy tale."

But the genuine Jack tales were passed along in a world where everyone knew what a peasant hut looked like, and there was nothing "fresh-washed" about any of the people in the tales. Only when the fairy tales were shifted downward to be "children's literature" did they become sanitized by nannyish adults.

In the movie, Jack could read, and so could his dad. They were so rich they owned a book. This caused us to miss out on the joy of the oral storytelling tradition, which is where the whole Jack mythos came from. (But at least the writers understood the use of the word "whence.")

My point is that they might have made Jack a refreshing, meaningful story by being true to the ancient tradition that kept the Jack tales alive, and by being true to the culture out of which they arose.

It is obvious to everyone that the Jack tales were about the powerless peasantry finding ways to get around the vicious dominance of the nobles who ruled them.

By calling the nobles "giants" you conveyed the relative powerlessness of the peasants, while still keeping yourself from getting killed by a noble for telling anti-noble stories.

When the local lord or baronet or knight or landlord owned your land, owned your service, could kill you or steal anything you valued and the only "justice" locally was a court presided over by that very noble -- well, it's obvious that the nobles are the giants and Jack is the peasant who gets away with amazing stuff and, finally, kills the giant and sets the people free.

Revolutionary stories!

But in Jack the Giant Slayer, nobody is oppressed, nobles can be good or bad, and the king's a sweety. The princess is a feminist (what a cliche).

As my screenwriter daughter pointed out, most of the "clever dialogue" in Jack was the sort of thing she puts into a script as a placeholder, a marker to say, "come back and write actual clever dialogue here." Only nobody ever went back and clevered it up.

Also, there were too many giants. In fact, the movie is seriously derailed by the fact that, while the giants are mean, their meanness is completely justified. They have been imprisoned in the sky, apparently without female companionship, for many years. Of course they're annoyed!

The Jack stories have one giant at a time. That's the reality of the peasant world. But in this movie, we had a whole society of giants and, alas, they were way more interesting and, in a weird way, sympathetic than any of the human characters.

I actually liked both sides of the rivalry for leadership among the giants. The booger-eating cook reminded me of ... never mind.

Of course, the biggest cheat of all was a magic crown whose wearer all the giants had to obey. Because that was in the story, it wasn't about slaying giants, it was about getting and keeping control of the crown.

The filmmakers were so oblivious to the lameness of this device that they actually built their epilogue around the fate of that crown -- and how a villain-like modern child seems to have an extraordinary interest in it.

Never mind that by tying the story to the real modern world, they completely undid the "it's a fairy tale" rule that governed the movie up to then. "Albion" turns out to be England after all, etc. Dumb dumb dumb.

And yet: The beanstalk was way cool. I loved the design of the giants. Ewan McGregor is so good that even with no intelligent dialogue he managed to be charming and funny and sweet. The human version of Kenneth Branagh.

And at least the giants moved quickly. No slow-monster stupidity in this movie. Well, less slow-monster stupidity than usual.

Here's my question. Isn't there anyone in Hollywood who understands that when you decide to make a movie out of stories that have a history of being embraced by the people, you stay true to the story?

Isn't there anyone who can understand that the film-school formulas describe only a certain kind of movie, and that most of the best movies don't follow them?

It's a self-answering question, of course. That's why we'll keep seeing big expensive movies that don't make the box office earnings the studios hoped for. There was a sincerity in the first Star Wars and the first Indiana Jones that the imitators never understood. The great movies are true to their roots.

That doesn't mean that synthetic nonsense can't make huge amounts of money. When Avatar makes billions of dollars, it's hard to persuade the studios that their movies actually need smart, original, sincere scripts.

But they do. All the fine work that was put into Jack the Giant Slayer by designers and actors and director and cinematographer and CGI and makeup wizards was wasted because the script never rose above the level of adequacy, while the budget required that the film become beloved in order to make back the investment.

Huge box-office numbers come from people going back to see the movie again and again. They don't come from a bunch of people going once each. But that's all they'll get with stories that don't touch us to the root.

Whatever process they used to come up with this script, it isn't how beloved films are made.

*

I was at Midtown Olive Press in Friendly Center, picking up more olive oil and balsamic vinegar, when I decided to try some of the Escazú Chocolate bars they displayed at the counter.

Escazú is a Raleigh company, manufacturing small-batch single-origin chocolates. This seems to be a growing trend, and it's one I applaud. Especially when they aren't trying to be strange -- or, at least, not at the expense of being delicious!

I was intrigued by their goat's milk bar. I like goat cheese -- kind of a lot -- but I had no idea what it would do to milk chocolate to have goat's milk in the mix.

The result -- if you like goat cheese -- is very good. The goat's milk does not take over. It's definitely chocolate. But there's a tang to it that definitely reminds me of goat cheese and I regard this is a very successful mix.

But if you hate goat cheese, why in the world would you try this bar?

Instead, try the Escazú Sea Salt bar, or their straight 65% chocolate bar. No, these chocolates didn't make me forget my favorites, but they are a worthy alternative and well worth trying. They may become your favorites -- especially the sea salt.

If you don't live close to Midtown Olive Press, just google Escazu chocolate and you'll come to their site. You can buy any of their bars; but you can only use Visa or MasterCard.

*

It's one of the best videos I've seen -- a short story about the power of words. It's about a blind beggar, and a passerby who rewrites his sign and greatly increases the number of contributions. See it at http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=Hzgzim5m7oU&vq=medium

It comes from an online advertising company, and their point is that with the right words, you can catch people's attention and persuade them.

Let's face it, an ad for an ad company has to be brilliant and memorable. If they can't sell themselves well, why would you think they could sell your product?

This video makes me wish I had something for the people at Purple Feather to advertise for me.


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