Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 16, 2014
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Wolf Children, Gravity, Getaway
If it weren't for my younger daughter, I don't know if I would ever have become aware of
Japanese anime films. Oh, I knew that something by that name existed, but the animation was so
non-Disney that I found it off-putting.
But then there was Kiki's Delivery Service, which I primarily listened to, over and over. It was
so non-Western in its storytelling that it often seemed as if the filmmakers kept changing their
minds about what the story was about.
Yet after a few more films, I began to realize that Japanese storytelling had its own internal
logic, and one of its virtues was that it didn't follow the Disney formulas.
I remember working with a former Disney animator on a series of animations of scripture stories.
I had already done hundreds of audioplay scripts and had a high standard of faithfulness to the
source, fictionalizing as little as possible while making the stories as clear and entertaining as I
But he was such a total believer in the Disney formulas that he actually insisted we needed a cute
talking-animal sidekick in every script. Maybe it didn't have to talk; maybe it didn't have to be
an animal. But it had to be cute and a sidekick, and either an animal or full of funny dialogue or
This struck me as insane, but we worked out a compromise - I left, and he brought in a writer
who didn't think it was insane, not to mention sacrilegious, to add such elements to scripture
stories. But I did learn one thing about animation: Disney takes its cliches and formulas
seriously. They are never to be violated.
Maybe that's why Japanese animations, called "anime" from the French, quickly moved from
weird to refreshing, as far as I was concerned.
There are cliches and tropes in anime that were just as repulsive as anything in Disney -
suddenly a believable character will change faces completely in a hideous caricature of "funny"
or "angry" or "in love." But the best of the animes generally don't use these.
This Thanksgiving, our youngest - now in college, and even more discerning than she was as a
child (though she was sharp and sensible from the start) - approached my wife and me with a
new anime called Wolf Children (or, in Japanese, Okami kodomo no ame to yuki).
(Please notice that in the previous paragraph I wrote that she "approached my wife and me," not
"approached my wife and I." If you are one of those people who would have said "my wife and
I" because some teacher taught you that it's always "other person and I," let me assure you that I
am right, and your teacher is hopelessly,
Wolf Children is definitely Japanese. It has a powerful story to tell, but it starts out obliquely, or
perhaps farther in the backstory than most American storytellers might have chosen.
Hana is a city girl who falls in love with a man who, from time to time, changes into a wolf. He
never harms her, and he's a good and loving father to their two children, Ame and Yuki. One is
a boy and the other is a girl, but I'm terrible with names and don't remember which is which,
though I think Yuki is the boy. And because I think that, he probably isn't. So I'll call them
"the girl and the boy."
They are still little when their father is hunted down and killed in the city. Hana, worried that
the children's shapeshifting will be noticed, moves out to a farming village, hoping that in an
isolated fixer-upper house, she'll be able to feed them with farming - and remain isolated
enough that their "talents" won't be discovered.
So up to now - and this is well into the film - it seems to be Hana's story.
But it isn't. Because after neighbors help her learn enough about farming to stay alive, the story
shifts to later years, with the kids in school. The girl has learned to socialize in order to survive,
but the boy is unhappy in school - he far prefers to go out in the wild and run with the wolves.
And that is where the main story takes place - in school and in the woods.
Except that once again it shifts. It's a story of mother and children after all, and of choosing
your own path in life, and ... well, it's an excellent Japanese anime, so it's about a lot of things
that can't be explained in a log line.
Here's the remarkable thing, as far as I'm concerned: It's a moving, emotional story, and the
melancholy bittersweet ending brought tears to my eyes. Yet along the way, there was plenty of
comedy and plenty of danger and excitement.
Is it Frozen? No. Frozen is the best Disney movie in a long, long time - but it's still a Disney
movie, with all the formulas intact. Wolf Children is a different kind of thing. A wonderful
thing. It leaves you with a different kind of feeling.
You can buy the DVD (or download it) from various online sources. Give yourself to the movie,
instead of expecting it to deliver Disney-paced storytelling. It moves a bit more slowly. But it
takes you somewhere Disney never can. And now and then, that's a good thing.
You have to understand why I didn't see Gravity when it first came to the theaters. I heard
people raving about it, but everything they said told me:
This is 1950s Campbellian sci-fi storytelling. It will have no characterization because it's about
one thing: A Competent (American) Person in jeopardy, who is forced to find resourceful
technical solutions in order to survive and get home safely.
In the 1950s, these were called "competent man" stories - the culture had little room for women
in space - and nobody bothered to mention that they all seemed American. Even when they
were nominally of some other background, sci-fi was pretty much an American genre.
Campbellian sci-fi (named for editor John W. Campbell, who guided writers like Asimov and
Heinlein in creating this kind of literature) was a huge step forward. Previously, sci-fi had been
John Carter of Mars or Flash Gordon ... or Giant Ants.
And that's what happened in the movies, too. Movie sci-fi was either serialized Flash Gordon or
one-shot horror films with weird alien or radiation-spawned monsters eating large cities. You
know, like Independence Day.
But Campbell insisted on scientific and technical rigor. What could realistically happen? Let's
have science-and-technology problems that the hero solves using science and technology.
The result was an amazing florescence of wonderful idea stories. Smart stories. Stories that
made you think, stories that taught you true things about science, stories that made you proud to
be human (and American).
But in these stories, everybody was their job description. Astronauts were astronauts. Soldiers
were soldiers. Aliens were aliens. It didn't matter who they were, what mattered was the
problem they had to solve, and either they solved it or they didn't.
So in "Cold Equations," when a girl stows away on a ship being sent to bring medicines to a
plague-infested planet, the pilot can't let himself care that she was only hoping to see her
brother. Her presence on the ship makes it so that there won't be fuel enough to bring the
medicines to the planet. Either she goes out into space, or hundreds of thousands of people die.
That's just how the math works out. It's a moving story. But it doesn't matter who they are
except that the girl is innocent and well-meaning so that when she dies, it breaks our hearts. We
know the pilot is devastated to have done this, not because of who he is, but because it would
devastate any decent human being to have to kill an innocent child, even if it's to save the lives
of so many others.
Do you see the point? Characterization - the literary process of individuating characters so that
their particular motives and backgrounds shape the story - would only interfere with a
Campbellian tale. There's no characterization in "Cold Equations" - or in "The Nine Billion
Names of God" or "Nightfall" or "The Star" or any of the other idea-based stories in that great
age of science fiction.
Characterization would be a waste of time.
I finally saw Gravity over the Christmas holiday and guess what? It is exactly what I thought it
would be. Yes, the "competent man" has been changed to a "competent woman," but that's
trivial. There are no important characters.
It doesn't matter to the story that it's this woman. Yes, yes, she lost a daughter and misses her.
But that never changes her actions except for a brief moment when we wonder if she'll just give
up. We wonder - but of course she won't give up because then there'd be no point in making the
George Clooney's character is a Campbellian throwaway. He isn't a character at all, he's a
playful jokester - a type - who, if you think about it, would be so annoying you'd start thinking
about cutting his air hose if you actually had to live with him for two weeks in close quarters.
But for the purpose of the story, his jokiness is an "endearing" eccentricity. It amounts to
nothing. He exists only to have a "Cold Equations" moment in which he decides to die in order
to give Sandra Bullock a chance to survive.
Giving Bullock a dead child certainly raises the pathos level (I can just hear the executives
sighing with relief in the pitch meeting when they realized that this film would indeed meet all
the film-school-formula requirements). But we could have made her a newlywed, or the sole
surviving child of a lovely lonely widow, or whatever. It wouldn't have changed the story in any
And all of this is ... a good thing!
What? Having no significant characterization is good?
Most films have no significant characterization. Even films that purport to be about characters
usually have nothing more than a bit of eccentricity as the film goes off in pursuit of a maguffin
But for science fiction film to finally catch up to 1955 printed sci-fi is a huge leap forward.
Sci-fi film has been caught in the 1930s for so long that people who know only film sci-fi think
that's all there is. They think Star Wars and Star Trek were fresh and new - but they're just
Flash Gordon all over again.
And the really current sci-fi films aren't called science fiction at all. All the time-travel
romances are billed as romances (Somewhere in Time, The Time Traveler's Wife, About Time).
And the deeply weird, inventive stuff that comes out of the sci-fi New Wave of the 1960s
(Inception, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) is not billed as
sci-fi either, because that would only confuse an audience trained to expect either spaceships or
monsters. So these pure sci-fi stories are called "mind-bending thrillers" or art films.
Gravity has spaceships, though. Real ones - or real-ish, anyway - and instead of running into
monsters or mystical space beings, there is a wholly technical solution to everything.
Now, because it's movies, and ignorant executives (and, probably, writers and producers and the
director) are giving notes and making decisions, it can't actually be as rigorously accurate as
Campbell required his writers to be.
So we have some moments of mind-numbing stupidity. For instance, when Sandra Bullock uses
a fire extinguisher to propel herself, basically everything goes wrong, as far as making sense
She uses the fire extinguisher like a rocket, only it's a diffuse spray instead of a tightly focused
one, so it can't really be aimed and much of its force cancels itself out by going a lot of
directions at once.
Even if it had been focused, though, she made no effort to calculate her own center of gravity.
So it wouldn't have just pushed her away from the dying station - it would have set her spinning,
just as she spun around before, only more violently and with no one to stop her from spinning.
She'd have been better off just pushing off with her feet toward the Chinese station. Then, if she
needed course correction, she could have used the fire extinguisher in a microburst aimed
between her legs.
Finding your center of gravity downward is relatively easy, because our bodies evolved to stand
upright; our whole system of balance is designed to calculate our center of gravity in relation to
But all of this is moot, because the real stupidity is this: When the film shows her firing bursts
from the extinguisher, she sputters around like a balloon with the air going out of it - and then
The first time I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The CGI people couldn't have been that
stupid, could they? But yes, they could, because it happens a couple more times. Even though
the movie already made the correct point that once you start going in a direction (including
spinning) in null gravity, you can't stop until something stops you, they really did have the fire
extinguisher blast set her in motion - only to have each motion stop, not because she pointed the
extinguisher the other way, but because ...
Because they felt like it. In a very non-Campbellian set of decisions, they got a bit of comic
relief but did not have to live with the consequences. They just waved a magic wand and poof -
inertia went away.
So it's hardly worth pointing out that when the escape pod hits atmosphere, it's tumbling head
over heels, so to speak, and without attitude jets there is simply no way it's going to be able to
stop that spin.
And since heat-shielding weighs so much that you can only afford to put it on one surface of a
reentry vehicle, the inevitable result of a tumbling reentry is the rapid cooking of any meat inside
Only all of a sudden, another bit of magic! Without fuel, without rockets, the capsule
conveniently stops tumbling, rights itself, and enters the atmosphere with the heat-shields
downward, after all.
So at the end of this competent-woman story, all of a sudden we might as well be in Star Wars,
with the Force doing all the godlike magic.
But not really. The filmmakers might be cheating - or so ignorant of physics that they don't
even know they're cheating. But in terms of the story, none of it is magic. The story thinks it's
still Campbellian. And so it's still Campbellian sci-fi, even if there are moments of ineffable
I hear that there are some people trying to give Gravity a mystical 2001: A Space Odyssey or
Contact ending, in which everything from the moment of her hallucination of a dead person on to
the end is just her dream as she dies. But of course that's just silly. This isn't that kind of
They've just been trained to expect something "mind-bending" in sci-fi movies that don't have
monsters or aliens or rayguns/phasers/lightsabers. There's nothing mind-bending intended here.
The movie is what it seems.
It's a good movie, with good actors playing non-characters and some dumb technical mistakes.
But the dumb mistakes are no dumber than the computer nonsense in War Games and Sneakers,
and the audience forgave the stupidity in those movies, too.
I hope that, with the money Gravity made, more executives will greenlight scripts that try, at
least, to be Campbellian in their approach. I hope that, with Gravity, sci-fi film is finally ready
to move from 1935 to 1955.
As a writer who works at home, getting to work should be the easiest thing in the world. All I
have to do is walk up to the attic, go into my little garret room with its claustrophobic sloping
ceiling and its lone window with a great view of (a) sky and (b) the neighbor's little attic
window, and start typing.
The trouble is that besides being easy to get to work, having my office at home means it's also
easy to skip work and stay home.
I'll go up and do my writing later. Right now I need to:
Get on the treadmill and exercise.
Unless the weather's good. Then I'll take a walk or run through the neighborhood.
While I'm going back and forth on that, I need to refill the bird feeders.
While I'm restocking the feeders, my assistant tells me that there are books to sign in the office,
for people who ordered them through my website, www.hatrack.com.
But first: The mail is here! Got to go out and get the mail and sort through it.
It includes a new issue of Commentary or Weekly Standard or New Yorker or The Atlantic -
you know, the magazines that actually do fact-checking (if you skip the New Yorker editorials)
so you can put some trust in what they say. Have to glance through whichever one came today.
Or else check out a catalog.
Since I'm sorting and reading at the kitchen table, might as well get up and pour a glass of juice.
And as long as I'm in the fridge, there's a nice chocolate bar. No, must be righteous. Yogurt
Telephone! Someone wants me to do something that isn't writing!
My wife is running some interesting errands. Do I want to come along? Ha ha. Of course I do,
because it isn't writing.
And since it's only a couple of hours till dinner anyway, I'll just sit down in my recliner and
watch some of the shows TiVo has been saving up for me.
Do you know how many days can go by without anything getting written?
Enough days that when I do get back to the novel, I can't remember where I was and have to
reread everything so it all gets back into my head.
But then I have a deadline for the Rhino Times, so instead of a chapter of the book I get paid for,
I write 3,000 words of a column for which I don't get paid. Thus I refute thee, Samuel Johnson!
(Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever writes except for money. Since I refuse
to accept blockhead status, yet more than half my writing in any given year is unpaid-for.... OK.
Yes. I'm a blockhead.)
Sometimes, in order to jumpstart a novel, I simply have to get away from my daily routines and
go somewhere that isn't Greensboro. A place where there aren't any distractions.
I have had several such hideouts. A time-share in Cherry Grove, South Carolina, served for a
time. The home of friends in northern Virginia. The home of my cousin in Los Angeles. I even
wrote two novels while in a car, commuting (Sarah) or on a long trip (Robota). (Someone else
The trouble is that each hideout eventually becomes like home - I learn where all the good
restaurants are. I find all kinds of delicious distractions. Pretty soon it's as hard to get to work
as it is at home.
Right now I'm at my latest discovery: Spa Koru in Avon, North Carolina, during the off season
at the beach. I've long used Spa Koru as my gym when I'm at the beach, and my wife and every
other female who has stayed with us loves their massages and other spa services.
But we've never used the villas that are part of "Koru Village" because we always needed a
much bigger rental house.
If I were here vacationing, my wife and I would take those leisurely drives, on uncrowded roads,
to Nag's Head or Duck for the good year-round restaurants, the movie theater, the interesting
stores. We'd take walks on the beach - which is fun to do with company even when the wind is
blowing and the air is bitter cold.
But having company right now would defeat the whole point of my being here: No Distractions.
The villa I'm in has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big common room with a table that's just
fine for typing, a huge kitchen, and ... it's just across a driveway from the best gym I ever use
(since Gold's forced Fitness Today out of business, I don't have a gym in Greensboro).
The beds are comfortable. The linens are plush. The villa has all the amenities of a first rate
Best of all, because it's the off season everything but Spa Koru is closed. The nearest movie
theater is an hour's drive away. There's a Food Lion and an Ace Hardware because the
year-round residents need them. But no other distractions.
Heck, I don't even have TiVo here, so I can only watch what happens to be on TV at any given
moment. It's almost never anything I want to watch, so even the television can't steal my
Of course, I still have distractions that I brought with me: Nuisance games on my Samsung
Nexus Android tablet, big honking time-sucking games on my computer. I have to have some
self-control to get my work done; and I have to have some entertainment between writing
The result? I've been here a week so far, and finally, finally, the third and final volume of the
Pathfinder series is really moving. I won't finish it here, but once I'm really moving on a book, I
can finish it at home - the story itself keeps me from being so easily distracted.
So yes, I'm at the beach, and Spa Koru is a wonderful place to go for a getaway.