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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 11, 2015

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


Madding Crowd, Dance, Ninja, Fairness

Some remakes don't need to exist. Take Poltergeist, for instance. I hate most horror movies, but Poltergeist genuinely transcends its hackneyed, repulsive genre.

Apart from the completely pointless and absurd self-flaying hallucination at the bathroom sink, everything in the film arises out of the fears of parents for their children; it's not about slashing and gore, it's about the terror of raising kids in a dangerous world.

Why would this movie need to be remade? Because filmmakers can be idiots. My guess, from how the remake was promoted, is that a horror filmmaker saw ways to make Poltergeist more horrifying. You can always make anything more horrifying.

But a let's-make-it-much-scarier approach would kill everything of value in the original, nearly-perfect movie. So leave it alone, kids. If the original is still completely successful and accessible to modern audiences, don't mess with it. You'll just embarrass yourselves.

I didn't bother to go see Poltergeist's remake. But when I heard they were remaking Far From the Madding Crowd I was torn. This was one of the first movies I truly loved -- one of my top five, forever.

Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and Terence Stamp were indelibly planted in my memory -- so deeply that when I think of Terence Stamp I don't think of Zod first, I think of Frank Troy, with his sword snipping away a lock of Bathsheba Everdene's hair.

It's Thomas Hardy's best story, in the way that Pride and Prejudice is Jane Austen's. But unlike Pride and Prejudice, Madding Crowd can be filmed without removing any significant scenes from the book.

That's because Hardy spent so much time and effort creating, besides the main characters, all the small people -- the farmers and housemaids, the local citizenry of every social level. This is the novel where we truly come to know the people of "Wessex," Hardy's catchall term for the region of southwestern England where most of his fiction is set.

So when we see the people gathered around for drinking or feasting or working or playing, we come to know them as individuals and care about them. Even though we still spend our time worrying about Bathsheba Everdene's various suitors and whether Bathsheba will succeed in a man's world, we are also immersed in a rustic community that we come to love and respect.

The original movie did a superb job of creating exactly that sense of community -- though without taking up nearly as many screen minutes as Hardy did book pages.

And the composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, did a brilliant job of creating a soundtrack that was harmonious with the genuine folk music that pervades the lives of the characters. (In the days of vinyl, I listened to the music over and over again.)

I thought of Far From the Madding Crowd (1967) as a perfect movie. Period. No flaws. I compared all period films to this one, and no matter how good they were, they were not as good. (Even another lifetime top 5 film of mine, A Man for All Seasons, wasn't quite up to the same standard, in my view.)

Yet there were reasons to have hope for the remake. For one thing, the most beautiful, expressive, memorable actress of this generation was cast in the lead: Carey Mulligan. I first saw her in an episode of Dr. Who (Sally Sparrow in "Blink") -- which is not where you expect to find ethereal beauty and extraordinary talent, but there you go.

Another thing was that every clip and every still from the remake looked like it had been given the same loving attention to detail as the original. So it was plain that the filmmakers were at least trying to get it right.

Now I've seen the new Far from the Madding Crowd, and I'm both astonished and relieved to report: This version has every right to exist. There are things I miss from the first version, but they also make some things in the story much clearer and more emotionally effective.

The 2015 version does not spend as much time with the rustic people, but they are still given a prominent place in the film and the Wessex countryside and culture are well represented.

The casting and performances are actually in some cases better than the original. Carey Mulligan's Bathsheba Everdene is portrayed as younger, more impulsive, so that instead of being enigmatic from the start (as in 1967), she is understandable, and we get to watch her grow up, coming to understand and cope with the consequences of some bad (and good) decisions.

The relationship between Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts) is also clearer, and Schoenaerts accomplishes the impossible task of being as good as, or better than, Alan Bates in the same role. Schoenaerts is helped by having a better-written part -- screenwriter David Nicholls helps everybody that way.

Sgt. Francis Troy is the only character who is almost too clearly written, just a little demonized; but because Tom Sturridge is such a superb, restrained actor, the performance never goes over the top. And we're given a far better experience of his relationship with Fanny Robin (Juno Temple), so that we see his heartbreak as well as his pride, the man he wants to be rather than the man he becomes.

Most important, the part of William Boldwood is far more sympathetically written than in the 1967 film, and Michael Sheen is movie-stealingly brilliant in the role. Peter Finch was quite wrongly cast in the 1967 version, though he played the part convincingly enough; now, in 2015, we can see Boldwood as he should be.

The 1967 version of Madding Crowd is not diminished by the excellence of the remake. It is still a towering achievement, and its more austere approach to the story, with its more thorough creation of Wessex, is still an unforgettable experience.

But this 2015 version is better. And it nearly kills me to say that.

However, there is one point on which the 1967 original is better. Shepherd Oaks's idea of marriage in that version was, "Whenever I look up, there you'll be, and whenever you look up, there I'll be," and those words make a perfect frame for the story.

But since I still heard those words in my head while watching the 2015 film, my own brain-version has the best of both films.

*

So You Think You Can Dance is starting its twelfth season -- with some big changes.

Ever since street dancers started showing up at auditions, they've posed a problem for the show's judges and producers. The street dancers have specialized in very difficult and complicated dance moves -- but few of them have trained in ballet, contemporary, Broadway, or ballroom.

The result is that they'll bring really brilliant street dancers to the callbacks in Las Vegas, and they'll drop out or be eliminated almost immediately, because they can't do the other kinds of dance.

Those who do make it, like Twitch, Cyrus, and Fik-Shun, do a remarkable job of learning unfamiliar moves; the street dancers are especially able to adapt to the work of the best choreographers of contemporary dance.

But most street dancers, like most tappers, don't even make it past the choreography round in the initial tryouts.

This year, there is no choreography round. Instead, contestants enter either the "stage" track or the "street" track, and you can go to Vegas by being very good in either one, without having to also be good in the other.

So the street dancers don't have to do a tango or a Broadway routine in order to get to Vegas.

This can sometimes lead to absurdities like the Vegas ticket awarded to the dancer who called herself "Queen of Detroit." She was charming, yes -- but she barely did anything that could be called footwork. This was especially ironic because Nigel rejected a later street dancer who did far more actual dancing than she did, because he didn't show enough movement!

Never mind; the other two passed him through, which was good, because he was a fine performer who looked like he might be able to make it through other kinds of dance.

We may already have seen the Season 15 winner, because ballet dancer Christine Shepard did such a brilliant routine that it's hard to imagine anyone doing better through the whole season.

Meanwhile, this year we've lost all the judges from previous years except co-producer Nigel Lythgoe -- the best judge, and now the only serious one.

The new judges are meant to represent the "street" side of things, I assume, but Paula Abdul is just as gushy and incoherent as she used to be when judging American Idol.

I had hopes that Jason Derulo would be better, but he's also gushy and inclined to love what he loves way too much, without any clear explanation of why.

Paula Abdul made a snotty remark about Nigel Lythgoe being as harsh and negative as her Idol co-judge Simon Cowell -- but that's because she's too confused to recognize that while Cowell didn't actually know anything about music, Lythgoe knows dance better than she ever will. His negatives are clear and reasonable, and even when I disagree with him, he is never negative for the sake of sparking "controversy" or for sheer meanness, the way Cowell sometimes did.

So You Think You Can Dance has never shown as many how-sads during the audition rounds as Idol used to, but this year they're making the same switch to sentimentality that Idol's producers did. We get lots of sweet backstories -- most of them quite irrelevant to the quality of the dancer.

SYTYCD has long been the one contest show where the contestants can't fake it -- either they can dance the dances or they can't. Nobody gets a pass because he's "trying really hard" or has a sentimental story. Do a bad job of dancing, and the judges point it out, following which the audience usually votes for everybody else and you go home.

We'll see if the high standards of this show continue this year, or if the new format (and the two-thirds-incompetent judging panel) turn this into something at the level of Dancing with the Stars.

*

Another contest show is also beginning its early rounds of eliminations: American Ninja Warrior. I have found myself recognizing contestants from the previous season and rooting for athletes with great sentimental stories. What takes the curse off the sentimentality is this:

There are no judges. There's just an incredibly difficult obstacle course, which makes harsh demands on the bodies of all the contestants.

And it's ruthless. Short people and thin, tall and heavy, male and female -- they all run exactly the same course, and either they make it or they don't.

Sometimes it can be heartbreaking, but there are no allowances. So when somebody does finish a round, they have really accomplished something.

There are commentators, whose job is to tell us exactly what we're looking at. I find this redundant and, usually, annoying. So we TiVo the show and watch it at double speed.

Tension and suspense really get to me, and when I have to listen to inane commentary, I start to feel homicidal. That's why it's such a pleasure to watch at double speed, because you can still see everything perfectly clearly, but there's no sound at all.

If, on rare occasions, some moment flew by too quickly, so we're not sure what we saw, it's so easy to back up and rewatch it at regular speed. I can tolerate that much commentary.

I never identify with the contestants. Most of them are, in my opinion, insane. Especially because those who do best are usually the rock climbers, since so many of the obstacles require the unimaginable finger strength that only rock climbers develop.

Rock climbers are, by definition, suicidal.

None of the obstacles have ever been within my reach. So I never feel even a moment's scorn for those who miscalculate, or run out of stamina, and fall into the water.

(Rock climbers take note: In most rock climbing, there isn't any water a few feet below you to keep you from dying when you fall. Instead there are more rocks.)

When I watch So You Think You Can Dance, one of the pleasures is to see a human body do things that I could not have believed were possible. I get the same pleasure from American Ninja Warrior, though the obstacle course rather than a choreographer controls the movements, and therefore it's much more repetitive.

Then again, it's much more fair. SYTYCD would be boring if every dancer danced the same routine each week -- but we could more fairly judge between them if we saw them trying to do the identical moves.

In a way, the fairness of American Ninja Warrior is exactly the thing that in our society we have recently begun calling unfairness. But I think true fairness is the level playing field. A five-foot woman who can't reach as far as a six-foot man could say, "That's not fair!" But no, it is fair. What would not be fair is to allow her to run a different course that takes her smaller size into account, and then give her the same honors as those who ran the full-size course.

The NBA does not lower the hoop as shorter players approach it. The little guys have to shoot into the same hoop as the seven-footers. Fairness is not judged by the outcome, but by the levelness of the playing field.

When students go to college, fairness requires that they all meet the same standard of admission -- and then of grading and other standards in order to get a degree. When the standards are adjusted to "compensate" for group disadvantages, the result is admitting students who aren't ready to do the work -- while shutting out students who would have been ready, or readier.

It's the same with adjusting mortgage qualifications so lower-income people can buy nice houses. What happens when you lower the standards to compensate for disadvantages like low income or poor financial management? You have more people who can't or don't keep up the payments, and instead of being renters, they're now renters who have a foreclosure on their credit record.

And when it comes to education, tell me: Would you allow a doctor to prescribe to or operate on you or a member of your family, if you knew that medical schools adjusted their standards so that less-able candidates could get medical degrees?

And is it fair that many qualified future engineers or doctors are shut out of the finest universities because they have Asian-sounding names? It is not "unfair" that Asians excel in school when members of other ethnic groups, including mine, do not do as well. It is only "unfair" when their places at those schools are taken by people who do not meet the same standards.

Do you want to be caught during an earthquake, driving on a bridge designed by an engineer who only had to pass "easier" tests in order to get his degree? It would not be unfair if he had been kept out of school by having to meet the same high standards as everyone else; but it would certainly be unfair to all the drivers who have no way of knowing whether this bridge was designed by a qualified engineer or one who got special "fairness" treatment.

"That's not fair" is often a true and justified complaint. But it is often just the whine of people who are unwilling to take responsibility for their own failures or misjudgments. They want the honor and/or income of those whose achievements meet the standards, without having to have the native ability or do the preparatory work themselves.

Nobody comes out of the water at American Ninja Warrior saying, "That wasn't fair!" Because it is exactly fair. They were allowed onto the same course as everybody else, and either they made it or they didn't.

Now, the obstacle courses are designed to be extraordinarily hard -- precisely so they'll weed out people who are only very good, instead of extraordinarily good. Nobody would want it any other way. Who would tune in to watch people go through an obstacle course that I could pass? I wouldn't!

But that doesn't mean that other venues should have needlessly high standards. Admission requirements at universities should be, as nearly as possible, exactly proportioned to admit only students who can and will do the work required there -- no harder and no easier.

One thinks of the absurd polling tests that were used in earlier days to keep black people from voting. Whites were given "tests" like "name the President" or "name two of the original thirteen colonies." Then blacks were given "tests" like "what is the fourth (or fortieth) word of the Declaration of Independence" and "which amendment authorized the individual income tax."

That was not fair, because even if blacks and whites had been given exactly the same test, none of these questions indicates whether you are more or less qualified to vote in an election.

In fact, just like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, American elections are meant to leave all the decisions about who holds office to a collection of uneducated idiots we call "citizens." I include myself in that classification because even if you're as brilliant as Thomas Sowell or Charles Krauthammer, you still have no idea how any candidate will actually behave in office, or what challenges they'll face.

Nobody knew, as Democrats tried to steal the 2000 election in Florida by a highly selective recount, that whoever got the presidency that year would have to deal with a massive terrorist attack on American soil before the first year of that term was over. But in the weeks following 9/11 I didn't hear anybody say, "If only Al Gore were our President right now."

Instead, Al Gore was preaching the anti-scientific dogma of global warming -- the kind of "crisis" that his feeble abilities were designed for, since as everyone knows, nothing we do right now will make the slightest difference in global CO2 levels for at least a century.

Elections are only a level playing field if everybody has a chance to vote -- exactly one time per election. That's why Republicans are pushing to require positive identification for voters -- so that in places like Chicago and Philadelphia, Democratic Party machines can't cast the votes of dead and imaginary voters, as they have been doing for many decades.

We all show positive ID to get on an airplane, rent a car, cash a check, buy alcohol or cigarets, visit a sick person in a hospital, or prove to the cop who stopped us that we're entitled to drive at all, and to drive this car in particular. It is not an unreasonable burden to level the playing field by requiring that voters meet the same standard.

You don't have to be smart to have government-issued ID. You just have to take the time to get that ID -- which means you have to have planned ahead just the tiniest bit.

I think the ability to plan ahead and hold on to your ID is about as high -- and low -- a test of our intelligence and industry as should be required in order to cast a vote.

And our elections will be fairer if only people who actually exist are allowed to vote.

But everybody should meet the exact same standard. Just as everyone who starts an event in American Ninja Warrior runs exactly the same course.

There's nothing political about American Ninja Warrior. This analogy is entirely of my own making. Yet people could easily say that ANW obstacle courses are "elitist" or "favor certain body types." They certainly do, just as college favors people who have acquired certain kinds of skill and self-discipline.

I can't imagine training my body the way the ANW contestants train theirs. But I'd certainly be healthier if I did, say, ten percent of what they do. No, five percent.

One percent.

We know what happens when we let unqualified people buy houses. Some make good; many don't. We know what happens when we admit unqualified people into college.  Some make good; many more drop out, when they might have succeeded at a school designed to educate less-prepared students.

Whenever you're tempted to say, "That's not fair," think first what you really mean, and what the outcome would be if the standards were changed.

If something really is unfair, let's fix it. But let's make sure that our solution is more fair, and has better results for society at large, and not just for one favored group.


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