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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 26, 2015

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


Lamb of God, Spartacus, Late-Night Movies

Have you noticed how certain words that end in "y" are regularly mispronounced in songs? "Party" has been pronounced "par-tay" for years, and other "y" words, like "city" ("ci-tay") are now following.

This is a natural consequence of the fact that the long "e" sound is hard to sing loudly in an extended note. Vowels that nearly close the mouth, either at the back or front (long "u"), are bound to be distorted by untrained singers.

What I wonder is if this is going to lead to permanent change in the way we pronounce all words that end in "y." That's how languages work, so it's certainly a possibilitay.

*

For most people, Handel's Messiah is the only oratorio they have ever heard or heard of.

Oratorio is a musical genre that allows for all the scale and storytelling power of opera -- without the expensive costumes and scenery. Typically, there are soloists, often representing characters in the story, and a chorus and orchestra.

The soloists sometimes sing melodic arias that can serve as climaxes, and sometimes recitatives that simply get the story from one point to another -- just as in opera.

Most oratorios tell a religious story, though the collection of scriptures used as the text of Messiah do not tell a coherent story in order. Instead, Messiah relies on an audience that already knows the story of Christ and is able to fit the various scriptures into that story.

But there was a time before Handel's Messiah existed. There were other oratorios with equally serious intent -- one thinks of Haydn's The Creation and Bach's Christmas Oratorio -- and each of them debuted as a new piece of music.

How many people attending the first performance of each of the great oratorios recognized that they had heard a timeless classic? And did it even matter?

What if Handel's Messiah had had only a few performances and then had been forgotten, or performed only occasionally here and there? Would the enjoyment of any one of the performances have been diminished by its rarity, or enhanced by it?

A lot of the time, a lofty reputation predisposes us to try a little harder. If you've been told that this is one of the greatest pieces of music of the past three centuries (meaning: ever), you feel a lot of pressure to admire it -- or at least to give it a chance to move or impress you.

But when a musical work is new, there is no such pressure. Instead, you get the pleasure of surprise, along with the freedom to make up your own mind.

I have no idea how many composers write oratorios these days. But one in particular, Rob Gardner's Lamb of God, has captured the hearts of many people.

Lamb of God retells the last days of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the atonement, using language from the King James Version of the New Testament.

Composer Rob Gardner is not only a creative and skilled composer, but also is a believer in the literal truth of the scriptural account. I believe this makes a huge difference in any creative work, because, while faith cannot compensate for lack of ability, where there is ability, faith allows the artist to plumb depths that would otherwise be inaccessible.

You can go to Amazon and sample or buy Rob Gardner's own recording of Lamb of God, but I was disappointed at the poor clarity of the narrative portions of the program. Audio acting is a separate art from stage or screen acting, and the readers were not competent, so the result is muddy. The vocals and orchestral passages are quite good, however -- and you can decide whether you find the music interesting and enjoyable.

But I have a better idea. In preparation for the celebration of Easter, most of the best musicians from the local diocese ("stake") of the LDS Church have prepared a public performance of Lamb of God. The instrumental ensemble is small, and the chorus and soloists are not professional singers. But they are all talented, and are all believers in the full New Testament account of Christ.

The result is a performance that is immediate and powerful. I have heard rehearsals and was both moved and impressed.

For it is in the live performance of music that it finds its full expression. The recording presents Rob Gardner's own interpretation of his oratorio -- his preferred tempos and dynamics, with performers of his choosing. But when you listen to the recording, it is at a distance.

This coming Friday or Sunday evening, though, you can hear Lamb of God while sitting in the same room as the performers -- not a vast concert hall, but a medium-sized chapel or sanctuary. Instead of hearing an idealized, abstract performance, you are hearing this singer, listening to this narrator, hearing these instruments.

It makes a difference to me, at least, when I am breathing the same air as the oboe player, the singer, the chorus. The strings of the violins and cello are trembling the air in the very room where I am sitting. It is electrifying in a way that no recording can be.

Lamb of God will make a fine beginning to Holy Week, to prepare for Easter as a celebration of the Savior of humankind rather than merely of springtime.

The performance on Friday, 27 March, begins at 7:00 p.m.; on Sunday, 29 March, the performance begins at 6:00 p.m. There is no charge, and donations are not accepted.

The performances take place at the LDS Church at 3719 Pinetop Rd., across from Claxton Elementary School. The performance will start on time, so please come a little early so you can be settled before the music begins.

My experience is that children under 8 are rarely capable of remaining quiet for the 90 minutes of the performance, so you should arrange babysitting accordingly, so you -- and others -- can enjoy the performance without interruption.

Some people will arrive with tickets, but they are not necessary -- there are no assigned seats, and no one will be turned away.

*

With my current brutal insomnia, I get to watch a lot of late-night -- no, let's be honest: early-morning -- television.

During the wee hours of Tuesday morning, for instance, I got to flip back and forth between the brilliant but quirky classic Vietnam film Full Metal Jacket and the much less well-known caper film, Criminal. And I also got to trip down memory lane with Serenity, watching Nathan Fillion in his pre-Castle days, and Gina Torres before her current role as Jessica on Suits.

This meant I got to watch the powerful death scene by Vincent D'Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket -- which comes 45 minutes into the movie, but is so powerful that it trumps the more-than-half of the movie that comes after it.

And then there's the shocking death of Alan Tudyk as Wash in Serenity, a fan-crime for which Joss Whedon has never quite been forgiven. But Tudyk himself is very much alive, and he is currently raising crowd-funding for an online TV show called Con Man, about the people who frequent science fiction conventions.

As for Criminal, I never heard of it when it came out in 2004. But when the leading star is character actor John C. Reilly, that's hardly a surprise. When films don't have "stars" driving them, promotion is an uphill battle.

The Sting-like conclusion was so thoroughly prepared for that it almost didn't register as a surprise. But Maggie Gyllenhaal is luminous as Reilly's duplicitous sister, while Reilly himself, as the mentor of a budding con man (Diego Luna), gives a rich and powerful performance.

I would never have downloaded Criminal from a mere description -- so I, for one, am glad for the benefits of paying for a cable service that puts on films and series that I would never have chosen to watch, but which sometimes reward my random late-night channel-surfing.

A few days earlier, I had another night of movie-sampling that gave me movies that weren't as good -- but that still were surprisingly enjoyable. If I had watched any of them in isolation, I might have grown impatient; but because I was recording all three at once, and switching back and forth, they all remained interesting.

First, there was Random Hearts, a Harrison Ford/Kristin Scott Thomas film directed by Sidney Pollack. Now, that's a pedigree that should have made the show a classic. But I didn't go to the theater to watch it when it was new, because I didn't buy the premise.

The idea is that a cop (Ford) finds out that his fashion-editor wife died in a plane crash on the way to Florida -- but she was clearly traveling with the husband of a congresswoman, and it quickly becomes clear that they had been having an affair.

Where the film's promos lost me was with the idea that the cop then becomes involved with the congresswoman. Why in the world would two betrayed people come together under such circumstances? But in watching the film, I had to admire the deftness with which pretty good writing and superb acting made this implausible turn of events work.

In fact, this is one of Harrison Ford's best performances. There are no opportunities for high histrionics, as in Air Force One (another film I recently rewatched late at night), but Ford is able to do something that John Wayne and Cary Grant, for instance, never brought off -- deep inner conflict that spills over into a scene with complete believability.

Ford is a star, yes -- but he can also act. But that didn't come as a surprise.

Rather, the two films I had never heard of were the ones that really struck me. The Emperor's Club looks, from the surface, like a poor man's version of Dead Poet's Society, a film that I despise, both for Robin Williams's over-the-top acting and the smarmy sentimentality and cheap melodrama.

If I want to get all weepy over a great teacher, I'll watch Good-Bye, Mr. Chips -- the real one from 1939, with Robert Donat and Greer Garson.

The Emperor's Club is another prep school drama, with Kevin Kline as the history professor who sponsors an annual contest about knowledge of Roman Empire history. We watch him labor to try to work with a student, Sedgewick Bell, whose father, a U.S. Senator, has left him without a moral center.

I'm going to commit many spoilers, but I do so in the belief that knowing the outcome does not weaken the pleasure of watching the film. I'm sure of this because I easily guessed all the pertinent plot points, and so will you, so why worry?

When it looks like Bell is actually trying -- he writes a worthy essay in an examination -- Mr. Hundert (Kline) puts him in the three-man contest, displacing a much more worthy student.

Bell is winning the contest when Hundert realizes that the boy is cheating. Hundert is told by the headmaster to overlook it; but Hundert departs from the prepared questions and asks one for which Bell could not have prepared a crib. So Bell loses, but remains in school without the disgrace that he deserves.

Many years later, after Hundert himself was deprived of the headmastership and quit teaching, he is brought back by Bell, now a very successful businessman preparing to run for office. Bell has arranged a rematch of that Roman history contest, and as Hundert once again presides, it looks as if this time Bell has done the work and prepared himself.

But no. Bell wears a nearly invisible hearing aid -- which is, in fact, a receiver for the grad student who is feeding him answers from the back of the room.

This time, Hundert confronts Bell in the restroom, and Bell delivers a smug monologue about how cheating isn't a problem, because what matters is winning. Only when he has completely laid out his moral vacuity does his pre-teen son emerge from a toilet stall, obviously devastated by learning what kind of man his father is.

This is not a feel-good movie, nor does it attempt tragedy. There's nothing tragic about either Hundert or Bell. After all, Hundert also cheated, by taking away from a better student (and a better boy) his rightful place in the contest. Nobody has the kind of nobility that makes a revelation of weakness into tragedy.

In fact, one might call The Emperor's Club cynical, except that the film very much cares about what is right and what is wrong -- it just doesn't show that those who choose the right prosper because of it. In other words, there ain't no justice.

And yet ... there is, because morally empty people have to live in the miserable world of their own making, while decent people can construct islands of decency.

Kevin Kline's performance is excellent, because it always is. Rob Morrow is also terrific as the "close friend" who cheats him out of the headmastership.

The third movie from that night's insomnia is a Tyler Perry movie without Tyler Perry: And Then Came Love. Vanessa Williams plays a working mom who got her son the old-fashioned way -- through artificial insemination.

She paid top dollar for her son's anonymous daddy: The clinic guaranteed that he was a law student at a top school, a high achiever with athletic ability as well. Health, strength, size, and brains -- all you could hope for in an absent father.

Only now her son is showing signs of aggressive behavior in school. We, of course, see how he is being provoked and goaded by a nasty schoolmate. But to Vanessa Williams's character, Julie, it looks as if she might have gotten him some defective daddy genes after all.

She locates the father by subverting the guarantee of anonymity, and finds that her "top law student" dropped out of school shortly after donating to the sperm bank, and his family regards him as a complete failure. But he (Paul, played very likeably by Kevin Daniels) merely aspires to be an actor.

Julie catches him at a time when he's about to give up on his plans and dreams, and talks him into sticking with it a little longer. However, quite against her will, he shows up at her house and starts becoming involved in her son's life -- without knowing that he is, in fact, the boy's father.

Also, when they show Paul learning his lines and then performing in the play, he's actually good.

Meanwhile, Julie has a boyfriend who is trying to get her to marry him. So she's choosing between two men -- but it's a no-brainer choice, because Paul is so good with the boy.

There isn't a moment in the story that isn't obvious and predictable. The reason that the movie isn't awful is that even though Vanessa Williams is too old for the role, she still makes it work. And the boy, Jake, played by Jeremy Gumbs, is an unusually good child actor, especially when he shares the screen with Kevin Daniels.

In a predictable story like this, the "relationship" between man and boy is usually expressed in montages of cliche "bonding" activities, plus an occasional hyper-cute scene.

Check. And check. Not a cliche is overlooked. Yet the actors are so earnest about it that they overcame the predictability and made me not only like them, but also care what happened.

Am I recommending that you seek out And Then Came Love or The Emperor's Club as overlooked masterpieces? Absolutely not!

I'm recommending that if they happen to come on television, you might give them a try. Because they are better than a lot of movies that were much bigger hits, and sometimes "pretty good" is way better than "sucks pig spew." I mean, if I had to choose between either movie and, say, any episode of a vampire or zombie series, or of Girls, it's an easy choice.

I would rather have slept. But as long as I was awake anyway, I didn't feel like I was losing IQ points by watching these movies. Is that a recommendation? I've read many a book that was no better, simply because they were enjoyable and because the author was earnest.

For instance, take Robin Williams's inadvertent announcement of the end of his acting career -- not Toys, not Jack, not Flubber, but Patch Adams. The promos were so smarmy that I wanted to flee the theater while they played. It was a cynical tearjerker about a clown bringing "joy" to dying children; I loathed it in anticipation and every time I happened upon a few seconds of it on cable, I found ample evidence that it was even worse than I had expected.

For the same reason, I never saw Pay It Forward. I know, I'm the guy who constantly says that I prefer movies about good people doing good. But I expect such movies to meet the same high standards of writing and performance as Oscar-bait movies about hideous criminals and crazy people.

In other words, there needs to be a story, and the actors should be given interesting and believable things to say and do. The fact that The Emperor's Club and And Then Came Love met that standard reasonably well moves them into the top half of all films: They are, in short, above average.

You can't just keep watching your top ten movies over and over. Eventually, you've seen them so often you don't need to catch more than a glimpse, as when I watched much of Serenity in the wee hours Tuesday morning. I still think it's the best space movie ever made (yes, better than Guardians of the Galaxy because, from time to time, it actually aspires to, and achieves, believability as well as charm). But that didn't prevent me from watching a couple of other movies and a recorded episode of Jeopardy along the way.

*

I never saw the movie Spartacus -- I was too young when it first came out. So when later movies referenced "I am Spartacus!" I had no idea what the context was until I finally caught the key scene on TV a couple of years ago.

I knew the basic story -- that Spartacus was a gladiator who led a slave revolt that had Rome in a panic in the years leading up to the first triumvirate. But life is depressing enough that I didn't have much interest in researching a story that ends with thousands of people being crucified. And I never liked Kirk Douglas as an actor, so I had even less interest in watching him pose and recite his way through such a tragic, heroic story.

Then I saw Barry Strauss's slim book The Spartacus War on Audible.com, and I realized it was time that I remedied that gap in my education.

It was seven hours well spent. There isn't a lot of information about Spartacus's life, but Strauss did good research on things that might have been true of him and the men and women who followed him to war.

The book is titled The Spartacus War, so it doesn't pretend to be a biography. Rather it follows Rome's most dangerous slave revolt from its beginning on the slopes of Vesuvius to its not-really-inevitable ending.

The most fascinating thing about the book is the way Spartacus had to cope with rivalries between various nationalities of slaves, who had very different interests and who sometimes preferred to follow their own leaders.

There was also a time when Spartacus could have led his army over the Alps to "safety" in what is now Austria and southern Germany, effectively winning the war by not being destroyed.

No one knows why Spartacus turned back. It might well have been that his soldiers didn't want to move to such a cold climate; it might have been the harsh reality that moving a slave army into lands that already belonged to the fierce German tribes might not have been much better than continuing to fight the Romans.

Later, when it looked like Spartacus might get his army to Sicily, where he could have resisted Rome for a decade, Spartacus made some demands that probably represented his real aspirations.

Basically, what he and his men wanted was what most people want: to be left alone to live quiet, peaceful lives. In other words, freedom.

But Roman society could not tolerate freedom -- if they allowed this slave revolt to succeed at any level, how could they possibly keep any slaves in bondage? Besides, Rome built its empire through relentless punishment of all their enemies. Once you took up arms against Rome, then even if you won a lot of battles at first, you would eventually be crushed, and the more Romans you beat along the way, the more brutally you would be treated when they won.

It was that consistent policy over a couple of centuries that led nation after nation to regard Rome as the inevitable winner, and surrender quickly. We pay a steep price sometimes for being way nicer than Rome (or any other world-leading nation in history).

You kill a few Americans, and, depending on the President and the public mood, they'll probably go away. But you kill a few Romans, and you'll have Roman soldiers in your streets for the next three centuries, and your kids will grow up speaking Latin. (ISIS is following Roman practice, not American.)

The Spartacus War is definitely history -- not a novel, so there are no characters to follow or care about. Just the movements of armies and the tactics and political moves they made. But I love history, so that's actually a high recommendation, in my opinion.

It's a good read and, when you're done, you'll know what actually happened, rather than the plot of the movie -- in which it was not possible for there to be a dramatic "I am Spartacus!" scene because Spartacus died in battle.

I wish the Audible.com reading had been better, but there were some laughable mispronunciations that were repeated over and over. This is the natural result of Audible's evil bargain with the Screen Actor's Guild, in which the union betrayed its members by letting Audible pay actors to do their own recordings, without getting paid extra for engineering and directing.

The result is that audiobook recording houses are barely staying alive, while narrators are getting paid the same price for doing twice or three times the work. Exactly the thing that unions exist to prevent.

Or, as in the case of this book, those jobs are simply not being done. An audiobook studio would have had a producer and director whose job is to make sure words and names are pronounced correctly, and annoying habits are prevented. But this narrator apparently had nobody to help him, so he embarrasses himself and annoys listeners.

Worse yet, listeners who do not know the correct pronunciations will think that this guy's version is correct. Thus readers who are trying to educate themselves about history will miseducate themselves about language in the process.

There are going to be a lot more shoddy audiobook productions before readers begin to look for the name of a responsible studio before buying an audiobook. Right now, if it's listed as an Audible production, that probably means it had no producer -- and no standards -- at all. What a shame.

But that's what happens when a monopolist like Amazon buys a company like Audible. High standards are the first things to go, in the belief that because the customers have no choice, they'll accept low quality.

And they're often right. VHS beat BETA, after all.

So it's quite possible that audiobooks will be permanently degraded by this collusion between Audible.com and SAG/AFTRA.


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