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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 31, 2013

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


Pumpkins, Sports Gene, In a World

I was introduced to the pumpkin-carving of Ray Villafane in an email that contained a dozen images of his brilliant pumpkin carvings.

No, let me correct that: These are bas-relief sculptures that happen to use pumpkins (or other squashes or gourds) as the medium.

Villafane has a sense of humor -- the faces are expressive and the images are often comical or scary. He works the rest of the pumpkin plant into some of the sculptures, and often plays with the pumpkin itself as part of the message.

But it would all be pointless if he weren't superb at the actual art of realistic sculpture.

Since pumpkins rot and sag, this art only endures in photographs. Fortunately, a lot of the images are on the Villafane Studios website: http://villafanestudios.com/

When you get to the site, click on the gallery labeled "gallery." You'll see an incredible array of creative work, not just in pumpkins, but in sand and molded plastic toys.

This is public art at its best. It's meant to bring pleasure to everyone. The more you understand about sculpture, the more you'll appreciate his superb artistry. But even if you know nothing about the art, you'll be delighted at the images that result. The fact that they were executed in such impermanent, hard-to-work-with media only adds to the pleasure.

Villafanes also sells instructional videos, but really: How many people have the talent to create good art? It takes way more than buying the right tools and watching a video.

*

It's simply a fact that the job of parents is to civilize their children before turning them loose on the world. This is often forgotten by the perpetual adolescents in our intellectual elite, who celebrate teenage rebellion as if it were not a sign of immaturity -- proof that you're not yet ready to function as an adult in the real world.

But if you understand that, you'll enjoy a video of teenager Ethan Metzger, wearing a yarmulke as he performs his poem "My Parents Brain-washed Me" at the first Bronx Youth Poetry Slam in May 2013.

Naturally, the judges -- who no doubt were terrified by the political implications of celebrating traditionally religious child-rearing -- did not advance Metzger to the second round.

But his poem is making a huge impression on the web, where so far 150,000-plus people have "liked" the video on Facebook. It's a wonderful celebration of growing up in a faith-centered home with demanding parents.

See if you like it yourself.

*

There's another art form I didn't know about: Re-creating family pictures. The website devoted to this art is called "Don't Poke The Bear" (with "Poke" deliberately misspelled without the O) and the explanatory subtitle is: Recreating Ridiculous Family Pictures.

The thing is -- the family pictures are rarely ridiculous. They're often quite delightful. That is, they would be delightful if you knew and loved the people depicted.

What becomes ridiculous -- in the most wonderful way -- are the re-creations. The idea is that you start with old pictures of children wearing childish clothes or costumes (including diapers and/or nothing), and then stage the same people, grown up now, wearing costumes as close to the originals as possible.

Of course they look silly. But it's also kind of nostalgic, as if they're saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if I were still as cute as I once was?" "That was me, even though I'm now much older."

But don't take my word for it. Go see for yourself.

*

I'm not sure why my "best of the year" list always includes films that aren't on anybody else's lists, but I can guess several reasons:

1. I'm really weird about the movies I like.

2. Other reviewers are like sheep, blindly getting sucked into the vortex of the movies that the critical community decrees are "worth talking about."

3. I look for story, character, and great acting, with directors who stay out of the way, while I'm completely unimpressed by odd cinematography and directorial furbelows that make other critics wet their pants.

4. All of the above.

And I'm also often in the odd position of really loving movies that I can't recommend to many of my friends and family because there are scenes or events or words that might offend them.

Though my friends often surprise me by being tolerant of the most surprising things. Like the very conservative-seeming friend who cheerfully confessed that she likes the always-offensive Tosh.O even more than I do!

Thus I'm not going to Gravity, which is probably going to win everything this year. First, it's in 3D and I get a headache within a few minutes of putting on the glasses.

Besides which, 3D is so phony and artificial that I don't see the point. Flat filming is exactly suited to reproducing what our retinas receive and send to our brains, and 3D filming is strange and fake. Reality doesn't look like that.

And when you add in the fact that the situation of Gravity is one familiar to sci-fi readers since, oh, 1955, you can see that I'm not too encouraged by the thought of Hollywood's melodramatic (but oh-so-arty) take on such an ancient sci-fi trope.

But hey, Bullock and Clooney are wonderful actors (though in combination their names sound like a jewelry company or a law firm), and if you enjoyed the story, then that's wonderful. And if it wins the Oscar, I won't mind at all. The Oscars aren't a very good guide to the actual best movies, but they do a wonderful job of reflecting the Hollywood culture at any given moment.

And it would be a huge stride forward for a sci-fi space movie to win an Oscar. Remember that the Oscar bias against real sci-fi was what kept one of the all-time best film performances, Jeff Bridges' work in Starman, from winning. (I don't count Avatar, because it was more of an insult to science fiction than an example of it.)

All of this leads to a movie that may end up as my favorite of the year: In a World.

It's a story of people who live and work in the tiny voiceover cubbyhole in the much wider world of film.

Few movies use voiceovers anymore. Instead, voiceovers are mainly used in movie trailers and commercials. These voices are almost the opposite of good audiobook voices -- where audiobooks require intimacy and clarity, voiceover announcers need to grab your attention and set the mood of the thing they're trying to sell.

The film begins a few years after the death of a voiceover artist that everyone agreed was, if not the best, then certainly the dominant figure in that little world. His signature was to begin a voiceover with the phrase "In a world," as in, "In a world where apes rule and humans are slaves," or "In a world without love," or "In a world of sorrow, John Doe finds a little bit of happiness."

That "in a world" opening requires strength and authority, and many voiceover actors would love to take over that catchphrase. Now the time has come -- a producer is looking for a narrator to begin a movie trailer with "In a World," and several actors are vying for the part.

Actress Lake Bell plays Carol, a struggling vocal coach who got into the business because her father, Sam (Fred Melamed), is one of the towering figures in the voiceover world.

Many people think young Gustav (Ken Marino) is a shoo-in, especially after Sam announces he's not even going to try for the part. But with her father not in contention, Carol decides now is the time for her to make her move -- she is going to defy gender stereotypes by offering "In a world" in a woman's voice.

The story gets complicated when Gustav seeks to get rid of her by seducing her -- and Sam, knowing how much his daughter wants the job, decides to plunge into the competition, expecting that his stature, and his rich and glorious voice, will blow all the competition out of the water.

It's a vile thing for a father to do to his own daughter, especially because she didn't enter until he had announced his firm intention not to audition.

A lot of people behave very badly in this story -- and almost everybody uses appallingly bad language. The F-word is used like a comma, and I was surprised to hear a completely unnecessary C-word. In fact, all the swearing was unnecessary, and without it, this movie wouldn't have had an R rating.

Such a shame, because a lot of people who avoid R-rated movies would have enjoyed this smart, funny, moving story, which turns out to be a story about what family member do and do not owe each other.

I wouldn't have begun this review with a discussion of best-of-the-year lists if I didn't think it was brilliantly entertaining, intelligent, and moving. I do know something about voice work and this movie nails it.

Every character is believable and interesting, including cameos by surprisingly big stars in the (nonexistent) movie being promoted by the "In a world" trailer. (It reminds me of Bruce Willis and Julia Roberts doing their cameos in the film-within-a-film in The Player, the non-winning best movie of its year, 1992).

The only lapse is that, while Fred Melamed has a truly glorious voice, Ken Marino's voice is merely adequate. Lake Bell is spot on as a self-knowing voice actor who understands that a woman is not going to prevail by trying to sound like a man -- a mistake that a surprising number of woman narrators make, pushing their voices down to the lowest part of their range.

In fact, Lake Bell is astonishingly good at everything she does in this movie, because this is arguably the most self-made good movie since Citizen Kane. Lake Bell is not only the star of the film -- and she's in most scenes -- she also wrote, directed, and produced it.

I don't know how Lake Bell became so respected and beloved that she could attract a glorious cast like the one she got. Or maybe they just read the script and decided that they had to be in this film.

There are actors who showed up as themselves, knowing that the script criticizes and ridicules them! Talk about modesty, generosity, and/or security! Eva Longoria, I salute you.

Word is In a World will be released on DVD sometime in November. Maybe not till December. I know I'll be buying it -- it's a movie I intend to see again.

*

When my reading group discussed Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, we were a little skeptical about the idea that among the determiners of extraordinary success was putting in 10,000 hours of practice.

Now, Gladwell never claimed that merely putting in ten thousand hours will make a talentless person into a genius. For one thing, it has to be a particular kind of self-critical practice -- productive practice.

Still, while Gladwell is right to deny that great success is necessarily the result of inborn talent alone, it is foolish to think that practice alone can take you to the pinnacle of achievement in any field.

One thinks of the obvious futility of a tone-deaf person putting in ten thousand hours of practice on the violin, an instrument where pitch is absolutely dependent on the constant microadjustments of the player's fingers in order to be true to pitch on every note.

Besides, I've watched the progress of other writers -- not to mention myself. In a creative rather than performance art, there's no steady progress over time. Each project poses its own challenges; but writers tend to plateau for a while and then make great conceptual leaps, acquiring new skills overnight, or so it seems.

In other words, mere practice does not account for creative genius.

But even with almost-pure performers, like athletes, dancers, musicians, and actors, who generally carry out the plans of others (coaches, choreographers, composers, writers), ten thousand hours may take them to the point of unforgettable brilliance -- but let's face it, people don't put in ten thousand hours on anything unless they're getting some external encouragement, either from the praise of others or from the pleasure of getting better at something they enjoy doing.

And that external encouragement must come from the start. When Van Cliburn sat down at the piano as a near-toddler and began to pick out melodies and chords for himself, even before anybody else noticed and praised him, he had the positive reinforcement of recognizing that his playing sounded like something.

When I was a kid, I did all the normal kid things. Back then, adults did not take over all the games. We played softball and basketball with each other, and tested ourselves against others our own age.

I wasn't lousy, but I wasn't aggressive. I could hit the basket about half as often as the best of the other kids, but more often than the worst. I could throw well enough for my throws to be mostly catchable, and I hit a ball now and then.

The trouble is, I didn't enjoy it all that much. I didn't get a great pleasure from the accomplishment, and I didn't get a lot of praise. When I had my hands on the basketball, everybody immediately shouted for me to give it to somebody else -- not a very encouraging sign. But even when I shot and made it, so what?

Besides, the best players were aggressive, and there was a lot of physical contact involved in these "non-contact" sports. I am not physically aggressive; in a chimp community, I would be the non-alpha who never even tried to mix it up with the Boss. I could see that I would never be excellent at any sport that required me to relish physical impact with others.

I didn't even enjoy side-by-side racing. I didn't care whether someone else was faster than me. Running was only for getting someplace more quickly than you could walk. I'm lacking in the love of competition that's supposed to be a hallmark of masculinity. Even playing games, I'm more involved with the shape of the game in progress than with the outcome, though of course I do try to win.

On the other hand, when I sang I knew I was on pitch and sounded good, and not just because adults praised my singing. I could hear the whole chord; I could make up harmonies on the fly. I could hear that my harmony sounded good; nobody had to tell me.

And I had the gift of gab. The right words just came to me. Sometimes it got me in trouble -- you don't want to use the "perfect" words when the person you're saying them to is bigger than you and prone to physical responses.

I could make people laugh. I could make people listen. I could make an argument that reduced them to sputtering silence.

So guess where I put in my ten thousand hours? On basketball? No. On singing. On instrumental music. And on talking -- as an actor, as a speaker, or as a writer.

But I was good at all these things from the start. Not a genius, but good enough that the ten thousand hours were entertaining activities all along the way.

Which brings me to the very useful book The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance, by David Epstein.

Epstein is not only a good writer, he's also a runner and was able to see for himself that athletes going through the same training with the same coach, putting in the same hours, would get radically different results.

He had good reason to doubt the "10,000-hour" theory -- because he had seen it not work. World-class athletes could emerge out of nowhere, with no training, and suddenly threaten world records. Even more surprising, great sprinters might be terrible distance runners, and vice versa.

So he worked with scientists and met with athletes and watched and learned and ... guess what?

There is such a thing as inborn talent, and it can make, not just "a difference," but all the difference.

I wasn't halfway through the book before I bought a copy and forced it on a good friend who is the athletic director at a major college. "You can't do your job from now on if you haven't read this book," I said, and I was right.

Because all that hokum about how "if you just try harder you can do it" is, to put it generously, crap.

I could have thrown that baseball ten thousand times and it wouldn't have made me a great pitcher. (Nor would it have made me stop blinking or flinching when balls came toward me at great speed.)

What The Sports Gene absolutely demonstrates is this: There are physical attributes that allow some people to be better than most of the human race, by nature, at certain activities.

There is a kind of muscle tissue that promotes long distance running, and a different kind that promotes sprinting. If you have unusual amounts of the one, you'll be exceptional at that type of running without any training.

Heredity and environment both play a role, of course, and training can improve even the most talented athletes. But greatness needs a boost to show up at all.

Beyond that, of course, you're still free to make decisions. I made the decision to concentrate on my writing and leave singing, acting, and directing as hobbies.

I also made the absolutely correct decision to stop putting myself through the pain of trying to take part in sports with people who (a) cared about the outcome, (b) were physically aggressive, and (c) had actual skills.

I was not wrong about any of those decisions. And when you decide not to put in ten thousand hours becoming "perfect" at a task you don't actually like doing, you are also correct.

The simple knowledge that humans are physically different, and some have abilities that most others lack, is liberating. We can stop expecting ourselves to be equal with everybody or, really, with anybody.

Not only is it kind of dumb to tell kids, "You can be the best if you only try," or to scream at a team of kids, "Don't you want to be number one?" it's also not very helpful to say, "You're not working up to your potential" or "Be the best that you can be."

Because why should you try to reach your "potential" or "be the best you can be" at something you don't enjoy doing?

And you're usually not going to enjoy doing things you aren't naturally good at.


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