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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 26, 2013

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


Parking, Talenti, Dough, Mr. Banks

If Christmas shopping taught us nothing else, it should guide us to the real rules of parking-lot etiquette.

Not really etiquette, since good manners rarely have potential life-and-death consequences.

Here's something I have observed again and again: I'm backing out of a parking place between two tall vehicles. I cannot see to left or right. I do have a backing-up camera in my car, so I'm not going to run over anything directly behind me. However, I have no idea about what vehicles might be approaching from either side.

Naturally, I'm backing slowly. But at some point, you figure, OK, everyone has seen that I'm backing out. If anybody's there, they're waiting for me to complete this maneuver.

So I speed up.

All of a sudden: Whoosh! Some car flashes past, directly behind me. No way was it going five or even ten miles an hour. Instead, this driver gunned the engine and raced behind me so he wouldn't have to wait fifteen seconds for me to complete my exit from the parking place.

After all, he didn't want my parking place, so why should he wait?

Here's a clue, kiddo: Backing-up cars are not stoplights turning yellow and then red. There is no advantage in racing through the gap.

Did I mention this before? The car that's backing out of a parking place can't see you. No, not at all. He doesn't know you're there. And because he is now sticking out of the parking place by several yards, he's going to assume that other drivers are sane and will wait.

It's true that cars backing into traffic don't have the legal right of way. (Though whether this applies to parking lots on private property I'm not sure.) But they have the right of way among civilized people.

1. The moron who speeds up to race through, risking everybody's car (and, at that speed, maybe their lives), will someday be backing out of a parking place himself, and you can be sure he will be livid if someone dares to race by behind him. So the golden rule definitely applies -- the essence of civilization.

2. The person who can't see always has the right of way. You have to back out of the parking place, and you can't see. That's just a fact. So when you're driving along and you see those backing lights, treat them the way you would treat a blind pedestrian. Do you speed up to whiz past blind people in a crosswalk? Civilized people don't.

3. Letting people get out of parking places makes the whole shopping process better for everybody. Everybody needs a parking place. The sooner the places open up, the sooner they can stop driving around and around looking for one. Sure, you're done. You're leaving. But a civilized person will think of everybody else and let parking places open up.

4. Driving fast in parking lots is not just stupid, it's evil. Think of what's going on in a parking lot. People are coming out of stores. Some of these people are short -- e.g., children. Some of them are excited to get to the car. (McDonald's! Cold Stone!). While you drive at twenty miles an hour, you have no way of knowing that a short person will not rush out in front of you.

How fast do you think you can stop between seeing the child and hitting him? No, not as fast as you think. You had no right to drive that fast, with your killing machine, where you cannot see what might be emerging from between parked cars.

I knew a girl in high school band. Talented, sweet. We were talking about college, and it came out that she had no intention of going to college. She pretended she just wasn't interested. She was going to get a job (and in the 1960s, there were decent jobs to be had with a high school diploma).

But she was so college-qualified that I asked her later, in private.

"My Dad hit a child who ran out from between parked cars," she said. "It was his fault -- he was driving too fast. The whole family is going to spend the rest of our lives paying for that. That's why I have to get a job straight out of high school. That's just the way it is."

When you speed up in a parking lot, you take everybody's life in your hands. Only an evil, selfish person places his momentary convenience above the safety of others.

Accidents happen, of course. But when you're deliberately driving too fast, it isn't an accident. It's completely foreseeable. It's your fault.

Slow down. Wait. Protect everybody.

*

Suddenly there's a new form factor for ice cream and other treats, and I am so happy about it!

Whether you get your prepacked ice cream in round tubs or rectangular packages, those cardboard containers are miserable to work with. It's so common for the scoop to cut through the cardboard, leaving a hole, and that guarantees the ice cream will dry up or frost over in the freezer.

I first found the new format in Fresh Market and Earth Fare freezer sections, when a new brand of gelato and sorbetto appeared in plastic tubs with screw-off lids.

The brand is Talenti, and when you unscrew the lid, what you find inside is the best commercial gelato, period.

But besides being delicious, with an amazing array of flavors, Talenti gelato has another, unexpected virtue: It's never hard to scoop.

We keep our freezer very cold. To us, this seems to be the purpose of freezers. The result, though, is that for years we have had to nuke our freezer ice cream for fifteen seconds in order to scoop it.

But Talenti gelato can be scooped straight from the freezer. It isn't soft-serve by any means. There are no weird additives to promote "scoopability," either -- in fact, they don't advertise this feature in any way. But it's true -- every flavor, every time. We still have to nuke other brands, but Talenti is instantly servable.

That's only half of it, though. Because that screw-off lid also screws back on to give a perfect seal. That doesn't mean you won't get a bit of frost formation -- the more air in a half-empty container, the more frost. But outright freezer burn and total frost destruction are a thing of the past.

If you're a food snob and allergy watcher (as I am), be aware: gluten free, HFCS free, hormone free, vegetarian, kosher. See https://talentigelato.com/

Favorite flavors:

Double dark chocolate (rich, but still mild). Belgian milk chocolate (mild, but still rich).

Argentine caramel. Sea salt caramel (same as Argentine, but with Fleur De Sel salt added for flair. Delicious).

Banana chocolate swirl. Tahitian vanilla bean. Roman raspberry. Chocolate chip. Lisbon lemon. Sicilian pistachio. Mediterranean mint. Blood orange. Alphonso mango. German chocolate cake.

Once you've tasted these gelatos, you'll want more. Once you've worked with these screw-off lids and plastic tubs, with easily served ice cream inside, you won't want to buy any other.

*

But stop. There's more. Not only is Talenti packaging their gelato in these wonderful freezer tubs, but also a very similar tub is used to package another amazing non-frozen dessert treat: Edible cookie dough from The Cookie Dough Cafe.

This is one I've found only in Fresh Market -- which is no surprise. At the Cookie Dough Cafe website, http://www.thecookiedoughcafe.com, the first thing they declare is that they are in a whole slew of Fresh Market locations. (I was delighted to see that Fresh Market has spread so widely -- California, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Florida, Virginia, Texas. Lucky is the town that has a Fresh Market!)

The concept is that real chocolate chip cookie dough has egg, and that makes it "unsafe" to eat when it hasn't been cooked.

Eating raw cookie dough was the primary occupation of my childhood and I never got sick. Never knew anybody who got sick.

The "danger" level is probably somewhere between "lightning strike" and "comet collision." But you know how our society is -- we routinely take part in absurdly risky behavior (sky-diving, surfing, driving any car on any road) but then completely ban substances that have a one-in-ten-million chance of making us sick to our tummies.

Anyway, the "dough" in Cookie Dough Cafe contains no egg.

That means it's safer. It also means that you can't bake it into cookies.

Which is fine. It's not for baking. It's also not for freezing. Like regular cookie dough, it doesn't "melt." So after you open it, you don't put it in the freezer, you just put it in the fridge.

It's good for snacking on, but so rich and sugary that it cloys quickly. I find the best use for Cookie Dough Cafe is as a "side" with Talenti gelato! A bowl of three or four gelato-size (small) scoops of ice cream, and then a spoonful of dough from the Cookie Dough Cafe on the side.

You bring a bit of the dough up with a bite of Belgian milk chocolate or sea salt caramel and they work together deliciously.

There are several flavors to choose from, but since I loathe Oreos and think M&Ms in cookies are a waste both of cookies and M&Ms, I've only tried the traditional chocolate chip cookie dough flavor. It is enough.

And then there's that screw-on lid so you get a perfect seal when you return it to the refrigerator. Basically, my in-home dessert needs are met for years to come.

*

I don't know about you, but Saving Mr. Banks was the movie I was most looking forward to this holiday season.

It purports to be the story of how Walt Disney talked P.L. Travers into allowing him to make the movie version of her children's book Mary Poppins that we all know and love.

But I have a confession to make. I liked Mary Poppins well enough when it came out in 1964. I was thirteen. I was not yet impatient with Dick Van Dyke's all-charm/no-believability style of acting, and I still thought Julie Andrews could act.

The next time I saw the movie, in my twenties, I kind of hated it a little. All the "whimsy" felt contrived and overdone. Musical numbers grew out of nothing. The only thing that saved the movie was the wonderful David Tomlinson as Mr. Banks, the father, and Glynis Johns as the mother.

And as long as I'm confessing my shortcomings as an audience member, I might as well admit: I didn't like the book, either. My favorite grade school teacher -- Mrs. (Fran) Schroeder in fourth grade at Millikin Elementary in Santa Clara, California -- was quite sure that I'd love Mary Poppins.

She was mistaken. She put the book in my hands, but ten pages in I still didn't care about anything.

I think I understand now why there was no connection. Mary Poppins absolutely depends on Mary Poppins being at once a stern governess and surprisingly magical. But I didn't grow up in the governess tradition. In fourth grade I had no idea what "normal" governesses were like. There was no frisson of recognition and therefore no surprise.

Mary Poppins was not magical enough to entrance me, as an American kid. I was bored.

The movie starts from the premise that I was not alone. P.L. Travers's agent assures her that royalties from book sales have dried up completely. When the book first appeared, the major group of book-buyers in England was familiar with the governess tradition. But in 1960 (when my teacher tried to get me to read the book), even England had changed too much for such a book to resonate.

I think it is safe to say that were it not for Disney's movie, Mary Poppins would be gone, as a book. So one could say the movie is really about "Saving Mary Poppins," and Disney is the hero, while P.L. Travers is the obstacle to saving her own book.

But of course Travers saw it the other way around. Disney was going to ruin her story -- turn it into a cartoon, a musical, a complete betrayal of everything the story meant to her. And she was absolutely right. Disney had to disnify the story in order to make money with it. The songs were silly and mostly irrelevant; their "cleverness" was skin deep. But they did achieve catchiness and that was enough.

With Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson in the leading roles, the audience expectation is that Saving Mr. Banks will be charming, funny, and real. And, at a superficial level, all three goals are met. I laughed; my eyes teared up on cue; Thompson and Hanks absolutely deliver.

So I can heartily recommend Saving Mr. Banks as a holiday delight for those who love Mary Poppins the movie.

As long as you check your brain at the door.

Since the title is what it is, I can hardly be committing a spoiler by saying that the movie frames a series of questions, the biggest being Travers's scornful declaration, early on, "They think it's about saving the children!" Obviously, the filmmakers will discover that it's about saving Mr. Banks! Ta-da!

But the real story isn't the one that takes place in Burbank, California. It's the extended flashbacks in Australia, where P.L. Travers grew up, with (says this movie) a desperate mousewife for a mother and an alcoholic dreamer of a father, who cannot succeed as a frontier banker.

On the one hand, the father is credited with being the source of P.L. Travers's bright imagination, and also the desperate longing to redeem him for his failures.

Never mind the obvious contradiction that her father, as depicted here, was the opposite of Mr. Banks -- that what he needed was to be more dependable and serious and unselfish and self-disciplined. Indeed, the conclusion of the movie Mary Poppins would seem to be the father's "redemption" by becoming the whimsical, irresponsible, hangs-out-with-children fellow that, in Saving Mr. Banks, ruins everybody's lives.

This movie was written by writers (Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) who clearly believe that Citizen Kane's "Rosebud" is just the very cleverest thing ever created. They pack Saving Mr. Banks with little Rosebuds, so we're constantly going, "Oh, look, that's why she doesn't like pears! Oh, look, that's where the carousel comes from!"

The most appalling case of this is the arrival of the dreaded Aunt Ellie (Rachel Griffiths, though we barely see her face). She arrives with the carpet bag, the bird-headed umbrella, a no-nonsense attitude, and a series of absurd "magical" gags she pulls out of the bag.

The movie seems to be saying that P.L. Travers didn't invent anything! This is the standard baloney that English professors have embedded in the minds of their victims students -- all inventions in fiction must be "explained away." It seems to be an article of faith that "There's always a Rosebud."

But even if there is some childhood source for every idea that seems fresh and original in Mary Poppins, so what? Just as in Citizen Kane, after structuring a whole movie around a single question -- "Why was 'Rosebud' Kane's dying word?" -- when we finally get the answer, a new question arises: So what?

So what? So what? So what? You've explained where all the bits in Mary Poppins came from, and so what? Does that diminish them or elevate them? Is the book better or worse, more or less effective, because we "know" these things?

This is the kind of heavy-handed symbolism that passes for art in Hollywood. And, for that matter, in heavy-handed serious-literature classes. The questions that do matter and the symbols that work properly (i.e., without being noticed) are completely ignored or undiscovered. Hollywood writers think they're doing art when really they're just creating mini-puzzles whose solution is as meaningful as a completed crossword.

Here's why this pervasive search for Rosebuds -- one-for-one symbolic connections between Travers's childhood and Mary Poppins -- is so poisonous: It gives the illusion that the movie has accomplished something when in fact it has done the opposite: It has created more confusion than we had at the beginning.

At the beginning, the title offers us the only intelligent insight the movie has to offer: Mary Poppins is about saving Mr. Banks. Great! Excellent! A fine bit of genuine literary insight, which, because it's true, seems obvious once it has been said.

But after that, because the Rosebudding provides the writers with the illusion that they are accomplishing something, nothing else makes sense.

Travers comes to Hollywood with certain rules she insists on. Not a musical. No cartoons. Of course we know she will fail on both counts. (In fact, she will fail on every count.) And since the presumed audience knows and loves only the movie Mary Poppins, the audience wants her to fail.

But don't you think the movie should show us the process by which Travers is either beaten down or persuaded?

You would be wrong.

The most egregious example is the music. "Not a musical!" she cries. Yet the songwriters remain in the room. They keep singing songs to her. This suggests she has already bowed to having the movie be a musical. When did this happen? It's never shown.

We do see a point where she joins in with a song by dancing with the writer. But there is no conceivable reason for her to do so. No one has said or done anything to persuade her to embrace the music. She just ... joins in.

Then, when she finds out that Disney is still planning to put animated penguins in the movie to dance around Dick Van Dyke, the scriptwriters arbitrarily decide that she will not listen to any explanation about the difference between an "animated movie" and a "movie with animation." She simply stalks out of the room and flies home.

Of course, let us not forget that she is absolutely right. The mixing of live action and animation is a wretched gimmick. Even when done to the hilt, as in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, it remains a gimmick that breaks the truth of any movie irreparably.

Don't bother writing to me about it. You may love the gimmick, but it's still a gimmick, and it stamps a huge neon "LIE" across the face of the whole film. And, after the first time you see it, it stops being clever and only the LIE sign remains.

Saving Mr. Banks has Walt Disney fly to England to persuade Travers. But he doesn't persuade her. He merely persuades the audience, which was convinced to begin with.

What really persuades Travers? We're never actually told, because nobody knows. The single most obvious motivation is the one her agent gave her from the start: She needed the money. And the movie is honest about this much: It shows Travers reveling in having money at the end.

The movie also seems to pretend that it is showing us deep insights into P.L. Travers by giving us scenes from her childhood.

Now, let's understand something here: The most powerful and truthful parts of this movie are the flashbacks to Australia. Some really lovely things happen in those scenes, and I kept wishing we could stop coming back to the obvious falseness of the 1960s scenes.

Oh, those scenes were loathsome! Sappy, stupid, and dishonest, yet openly about being sappy stupid and dishonest. The moment when I threw up a little was when Travers's driver tells her about his handicapped child.

Maybe the real driver really did have a handicapped child. I don't know and I don't care. The way the movie uses this handicapped child is to force the snooty Travers to connect with this cartoon of a "regular American." As a parent of a real handicapped child, I am nauseated by the filmic use of such children as mere "tickets" to be punched by lazy, dishonest writers.

I can almost hear the story meeting. "I know, let's give the driver a handicapped child!" "Great idea!"

But, like the Disney Mary Poppins itself, the charm of the acting will blind most audience members to the deep badness and dishonesty of the writing and the characters. Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, B.J. Novak, Bradley Whitford, Kathy Baker -- these are truly brilliant performers.

They are so good that they make us believe, for a few moments, that these words might actually be said by real people, or that there once were fifteen seconds where Disney studios actually functioned this way.

But forget those "modern" scenes, because their badness is somewhat cured by the flashbacks.

Not that the flashbacks are any better written, mind you. They are totally by-the-numbers. But because they aren't about Hollywood and the evisceration of a story by untalented hacks, there is a chance of truth, and every now and then the cinematographer and the actors create something rather beautiful and sweet.

All the good moments of this movie are in the flashbacks and, now and then, when Emma Thompson is alone onscreen.

Colin Farrell and Ruth Wilson as the parents of P.L. Travers, along with Annie Rose Buckley as Ginty -- the child Travers herself -- give lovely, real performances. True, the flashback narrative is as incoherent as the modern one, but in between Rosebuds, there are real images and symbols (because they're not laid out like tidy hedge mazes) that have some power to move us.

The pleasures of Saving Mr. Banks are real enough. Many will think they have seen a good movie and have learned something about how the beloved movie Mary Poppins was made.

The truth of how Mary Poppins was made would have been more effectively symbolized if Disney had stripped off Travers's clothing and raped her on his desk. But nobody would want to watch that movie (especially not I).

The proof that I'm right about the deep dishonesty of this movie is there in the film itself. The movie makes a point of the fact that Travers insists that all the story conversations be taped.

During the credits at the end of the film, they actually play one of the real taped sequences. And in that brief sequences we learn: Travers had a far more cooperative attitude than the movie pretends. In essence, it denies the premise of the film!

Moreover, that real tape sequence provides the moment of deepest pathos: Travers is talking as if she really believes that the creation of the movie will be collaborative.

Clearly, she didn't understand that all these conferences with her were meaningless lies, a potemkin village created solely to induce her to sign over the rights.

Once she signs, nothing she ever said and nothing they ever promised her will matter. All promises will be broken and everything she asked for will be ignored. And Travers doesn't understand this. She thinks she's dealing with people who mean what they say.

That is the first huge Hollywood in-joke in this movie. Travers bought the lie!

The second huge Hollywood in-joke in this movie is: The audience will also buy these lies! The audience will think Disney actually cared! That he only broke his word when it was artistically necessary.

What a joke. Disney studios knew how to do a very limited range of tricks, and so they were going to use all those tricks in Mary Poppins. It's that simple.

And because Disney controls all film rights to Mary Poppins, we will never see the movie P.L. Travers wanted to have made. The movie in which real children see a kind of magic that's invisible to adults, a magic that makes Mary Poppins more, not less, intimidating. She is godlike in the story, not cute; a witch more powerful than their father, but fortunately a witch who has not come to destroy.

A minimalist witch, who should have been in a minimalist fantasy.

The Disney version is nothing but a Disney version -- charming in its way, beloved by Disney fans, but a travesty of an adaptation of anything Travers wrote. I'm glad she got money, because that's all that was left when Disney got through with her book.

Apart from the flashbacks, the best thing about this movie is that it amounts to an inadvertent confession. While thinking they're giving us a charming Walt Disney, the makers of Saving Mr. Banks reveal him to be a hypocrite who pretends to be egalitarian while ruling his little kingdom with a totalitarian fist.

A man who will not let anyone stop him from doing exactly what he wants, without compromise.

And so he succeeds in "saving Mr. Banks" -- or at least saving Mr. Banks's cash-strapped daughter -- by taking away the only thing of value that she owned and doing to it every single thing she feared most.

There's a part of me that wonders if, in the cracks of the hackery of this script, the filmmakers might have meant to sneak this truth past the Disney image-protection mafia. If so, well done!

But I think the confession is inadvertent, and therefore much more believable.


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