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