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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 23, 2017

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

Gratitude, Christopher Robin, Odor Control

A weird thing is happening to me. At age 66, with one stroke behind me and type II diabetes busily changing my life, I find myself noticing perfectly ordinary things -- walking up the front walk to my house with an armful of mail and catalogs, looking at my yard as I back out of my driveway, sitting at our kitchen table playing games with friends, hearing the voice of a grandchild singing a song to her grandma on Facetime, practicing a tricky passage during choir rehearsal under the baton of my wife, or hearing our friend Christi Baughan's glorious soprano voice soaring with song -- and I'm suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude.

Not necessarily for that particular event or thing, but rather gratitude for being alive, for having a life that contains so many kind and generous people, good memories, and continuing opportunities to accomplish useful things.

This is a review column, and it's the nature of the beast that I will often complain about things that don't work right or fail to be what they claim to be.

But even on my worst day, I'm glad to be alive. I'm glad that the vicissitudes of life brought me to this beautiful city, to my lovely neighborhood, to a climate that allows trees to grow gloriously tall and flowers to bloom all year, with beautiful snow and scary ice storms just often enough.

I've had regrets and griefs in my life, but the weird thing is that I'm grateful even for them. I miss my missing children, but I'm so glad for the ones who remain alive, and for our grandchildren, who are being raised in homes of love and wisdom; and I'm glad of every moment we partook of the lives of our children who have passed on.

And when it comes to my own failings, mistakes, and wrongs, I'm sorry indeed for the very great distance between me and perfection; and I'm all the more grateful for the hope of redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

At my age, as more and more of my contemporaries reach the end of their lives, I'm not particularly worried about death itself. I can't say that even during my stroke I really "faced death." I hope I don't meet death for many years yet, but I know where death lives, and his address is already on my personal GPS. When it's time for me to go there, I don't think that I'll get lost along the way.

It's a good thing to make lists of things and people and events and actions that we're grateful for -- it's so much better to begin the official Christmas season with lists of gratitude than with wish lists.

Yet in my heart, any lists of things I'm grateful for merely skate over the surface, because enumeration is impossible. For every minute that I'm alive, even if I'm complaining about something, criticizing something, regretting something -- I'm so glad to have this minute in which to complain, criticize, or regret.

*

There are many good reasons to create movies, plays, and stories, and some of the most admirable ones deal with tragedy, ugliness, fear, and regret. Yesterday afternoon, a couple of friends came over to watch Hacksaw Ridge with me; they hadn't seen the movie yet, and after months of my telling them that it was the finest and realest war movie ever made, they decided to see.

I can't speak for them, but watching Hacksaw Ridge through again, I was struck by many things. I've never seen a film that depicted so effectively the horrors and terrors and damage of war. Yet that is not where the movie leaves us.

At the end, as we see real footage of interviews with the old man that the hero of the movie lived to be, I see him through the lens of the love and faith that kept him up all night on a battleground controlled by the enemy, leading or carrying or pulling one wounded soldier after another to the brink of a cliff and lowering them to safety and medical help, each time praying, "Lord, let me save just one more."

That is a thing of beauty; ugly as it is, Hacksaw Ridge, because of its unflinching truthfulness, is a beautiful film. If Mel Gibson had directed no other movie, he would deserve to be remembered and respected for this one.

My wife and I just saw another truly beautiful film: Goodbye Christopher Robin. In its own way, this is also a war film, and a love story. But above all, it's the story of a child whose joy was taken from him by the creation of Winnie the Pooh.

At the most superficial level, Goodbye Christopher Robin tells the story of how the Winnie the Pooh books came to be written. When We Were Very Young (1924), Winnie-the-Pooh (1926), Now We Are Six (1927), and The House at Pooh Corner (1928) took the world by storm; they were the Harry Potter of their time.

When I was young, these books played no part in my life. The first time I ever encountered a Winnie the Pooh story was when Disney came out with an animated cartoon about the stuffed bear and his friends. To this day I haven't read the original books.

I have also never read Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel Tarzan of the Apes, or any superhero comics that I didn't write, yet I'm aware of these characters because, like Winnie the Pooh, their cultural penetration is total.

We see in the movie how A.A. Milne's impetus to write these books came out of a time when he was trying to write a powerful, serious anti-war book. Previously, after coming home from World War I, he had established himself as a novelist, poet, and playwright; before the war, he was famous for his humorous pieces in magazines.

The movie posits that Milne was still troubled by aftereffects of the war, so that his own comedies came to feel inadequate to him. He also had a dread of buzzing insects.

He was sidetracked by his little boy's imaginary world, which had been prompted in part by the way that Milne's wife, Daphne, "did voices" for his stuffed animals, joining in with his play. Joining in his son's play, Milne was delighted -- but he also sensed the commercial possibilities of his son's play.

He invites his friend, Ernest Howard Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore), to visit their house in the country, where Shepard watches Milne and Christopher Robin at play and sketches the boy and his stuffed animals, anticipating the illustrations he would create for the finished books.

In short, Milne didn't write these books for Christopher Robin, he wrote them from the boy.

Nobody could have anticipated how frantically the books would sell. Nobody remembers any of Milne's other works -- Winnie the Pooh ate his career.

But the books absolutely devoured Christopher Robin's childhood. The movie does bring us to a kind of reconciliation, but along the way we see how the boy suffered from having his actual name and image be a part of these stories.

And his name was involved from the start -- before Edward Bear transformed into Winnie the Pooh. Milne began it with a poem called "Vespers," beginning with this verse:

Little Boy kneels at the foot of the bed,

Drops on the little hands little gold head.

Hush! Hush! Whisper who dares!

Christopher Robin is saying his prayers.

http://aamilnepoetry.weebly.com/vespers.html

The prayer he says in the poem is reenacted in the film, as are most of the themes of childhood in the four books. The two Pooh books are a series of stories, which can generally be read in any order; the two non-Pooh books are collections of children's verses, though Pooh does appear in some of them.

The success of these books brought floods of reporters to the Milne home, with a huge demand for interviews, not with Milne, but with Christopher Robin. The film shows him complying, reluctantly, with these intrusions into his life, until, finally, it dawns on Milne that all this publicity is depriving his son of any scrap of childhood and normality.

One powerful aspect of all this attention is that, while "Christopher Robin" would be the name on the boy's birth certificate, within the family he was never called by that name. Instead, he was "Billy Moon," the "Moon" part deriving from his own childish inability to say the name "Milne," which is also unpronounceable to most adults.

The film also suggests the origin of "Billy," but I didn't catch the explanation and in the theater I couldn't push rewind and hear it again.

(Other reading tells me that his parents were originally going to call him "Billy" but decided the name was too informal [see "Billy Carter" and "Billy Bob Thornton"]. Their first choice was "Rosemary," in anticipation of a different array of chromosomes; and this is perhaps why he was dressed in such girly clothes, with such girly hair, as a child.)

For that matter, Alan Alexander Milne was called by neither of his given names; instead, he went by "Blue," the name his son called him. So Billy Moon was not just being stubborn when he insisted that he was not Christopher Robin.

There are so many lovely moments in the film, which is infused with actor Domhnall Gleeson's ineffable sweetness, which we saw to powerful effect in Richard Curtis's moving film About Time (2013). As A.A. Milne, Gleeson is able to show us the damage from his war experiences along with his efforts to be a good husband and father.

But this film rose or fell depending upon the qualities of the child cast in the title role. Will Tilston is never, for a moment, "cute." This is no one-note Home Alone or Oliver! performance. Tilston is that rare thing: a child who is able to speak his lines with such utter naturalness that you forget that you're not seeing a child speaking from his own heart.

Whatever else Tilston does in his life, this film will remain one of most effective, beautiful child-actor performances in history. If you can watch Goodbye Christopher Robin without coming to love this child, you must be a truly empty human being. I mean that in the nicest possible way -- it's probably not your own fault that you have become the cynical, evil, heartless person who remains untouched by this film.

OK, yes, I know, that's a very uncharitable attitude on my part. But believe me, having worked with many child actors over the years, I know how rare it is to have a child who can give such a natural performance. It takes extraordinary verbal ability and intelligence from the child, because Tilston had to understand the flow of the whole movie and be the child he needed to be from beginning to end.

Tilston is joined in the latter part of the film by Alex Lawther, who played Christopher Robin as an 18-year-old and later. Though his youthful face allows Lawther to play young, he is in the midst of a fine adult career playing youthful roles. He is absolutely spot on in his continuation of Tilston's performance, and it is Lawther who gets to have all the powerful scenes of confrontation and reconciliation with Gleeson as Milne.

Margot Robbie has a thankless role as Daphne Milne ("Daphne" seems also to be a nickname). While she is charming when she does the voices of the stuffed animals in playing with Billy Moon, the story and script make her something of a villain -- cold, selfish, distant. While I know that women of her social class expected hired nurses to do all the actual child-rearing, it's painful to watch this in process.

Yet this does not mean that well-to-do parents in this era did not love their children. When Blue and Daphne send Christopher Robin off to a boarding school, it wasn't as heartless an act as it might seem to a modern audience: Milne's own father was headmaster of such a school, and that's how Milne grew up.

I couldn't help but remember Winston Churchill's lonely, heartfelt letters to his parents when he was in boarding school, begging them to visit him (they never did). And Churchill also had a beloved nanny or nurse, Elizabeth Everest, whom young Winston fondly called "Woomany." She was one to whom he poured out his heart; she was the one who actually answered his letters from school.

When she was dying (when he was a young adult) he rushed to her bedside, and then provided the headstone for her grave. "She had been my dearest and most intimate friend during the whole twenty years I had lived.... I shall never know such a friend again," he said.

Surely this reflects the relationship that Christopher Robin had with his "Nou" (Olive Rand, played with wit and strength by Kelly MacDonald).

Even though the Pooh books suggest that Milne valued his relationship with his son, it's telling that the movie shows Milne as being quite distant, often withdrawing from the family to work on his writing. Christopher Robin himself said, in an interview, that "because his father could not play with his small son and didn't know how or where to begin, he created 'a dream son' on the page instead."

While the movie shows Christopher Robin's school years as a time of estrangement, the same interview has Christopher Robin reporting that he actually had his best relationship with his father during those years -- because Christopher Robin was old enough to join in with activities that Milne valued: "The Times crossword and algebra and Euclid."

But if the film takes liberties for dramatic effect, the result is powerful and not really false to the overall story of the family. The attitude we see from 18-year-old Christopher Robin in the movie was not simply made up. As Christopher Robin was first trying to find his way in the world, he "came to believe that his father 'had got where he was by climbing on my infant shoulders, that he had filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.'"

And even though in later years Christopher Milne would tell interviewers that he had made his peace with Winnie the Pooh, the fact remained that as an adult he supported himself entirely from the bookshop he and his wife, Clare, opened; and, until the financial demands of old age, he never took a farthing from the fortune earned by his father's books. (He finally took the money because "I had to accept it, for Clare's sake.")

Perhaps, then, the movie does a fair job of explaining why "in his father's last years, he rarely saw him." And "after his father's death in 1956, his mother lived on for 15 years. He saw her only once."

That is not a man who has truly reconciled with his parents.

What happened to all those stuffed animals? Starting in 1947, Milne let the little beasts tour American bookshops until, with Christopher's blessing, they were donated to the New York Public Library, where visitors can still see them.

"Christopher was content never to see them again. 'I like to have around me the things I like today, not the things I once liked many years ago.'"

(Quotes are from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/what-to-read/i-knew-christopher-robin--the-real-christopher-robin/ )

Don't let that unsentimental attitude spoil your experience of the film. Simply as a work of art, this movie matters.

In a world where a supporting actor Oscar was given to Tatum O'Neal for Paper Moon (age 10, 1974) and Anna Paquin for The Piano (age 11, 1994), they need to create a super-Oscar for Will Tilston, because his performance of a very complicated role is perfect.

But let's also remember that the script, by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, gave him (and everyone else) so many perfect things to say and do. This is a masterpiece of writing, and if it's nominated by the Writers Guild for their award, these two writers will have my vote.

Oscar schmosker. Just go see Goodbye Christopher Robin -- or, if you miss it in the theater (which would be a shame), make sure to stream it or catch it on a premium channel as soon as it becomes available.

*

I grew up in a house where the bathroom air freshener was a struck match. It still seems like a miracle to me that simply striking a match would clear the air of even the most powerful olfactory disturbances. The lit-match smell would dissipate almost at once -- yet the earlier smell never came back.

Since then, we Americans have largely graduated to more sophisticated remedies -- usually products from Lysol or Febreze.

Perpetual "air fresheners" usually contain perfumes that give me a headache, and I can't ride in a car with one of those horrible pine-scented stink generators hanging from the rear-view mirror. The headache begins instantly and only gets worse. So we can't use any of those.

But there are times when the main-floor guest bathroom will be the source of a stench that can humiliate the guest or family member who visited it most recently. That's why it matters that we place in that bathroom an effective and pleasant air freshener.

For years, Lysol's normal disinfectant spray did the job -- but you had to spray rather a lot of it, and then the place smelled like Lysol for a while. An improvement, but not really a total solution to the stink problem.

Recently, we tried two new products (well, new to us) that both do a superb job.

The first one I tried was an air freshener from Citrus Magic (made by Dermatone; see http://www.dermatone.com/CitrusMagicHome/ ).

It comes in a couple of fragrances, and in non-aerosol cans as well as slow-release solids. We used the Tropical Lime, and I quickly learned that all that is needed, ever, is the tiniest blip of spray. You point the spray nozzle upward, push the button for a brief burst, and then get out of the bathroom.

No, the spray doesn't have the punishingly toxic odor of the ordinary car air freshener, but even with such a short burst it can kind of get in your nose and lungs while you're standing there washing your hands. It can make you feel a little sneezy.

But man, it smells good, and the malevolent odor has been completely and permanently slain.

My wife, though, decided that maybe there was a better way, so in another bathroom we've been using Lysol's excellent Neutra Air. They have scented versions, but we have used only the one that truly lives up to its name. It takes a slightly more thorough spraying -- a couple of bursts -- but the bad scent is gone for good, replaced by nothing at all.

That's right, unscented Neutra Air leaves behind no smell that I can detect, and even if I walk right through the spray, there's no choky sneezy effect. It really is neutral.

We could easily switch entirely to Neutra Air, if it weren't for the fact that I enjoy the smell of Citrus Magic so much! Both products do an excellent job of getting rid of sad domestic stinkiness.

During the holiday season, though, there's a third alternative -- cinnamon brooms from Fresh Market. As soon as they put them out at the beginning of the holiday season, I install a few brooms in the music room, and soon the entire house has a slight tinge of cinnamon.

Cinnamon is one of my favorite scents -- and flavors. Every year, our Thanksgiving turkey is cooked with cinnamon sticks in the cavity, and basted with melted butter that contains heaps of cinnamon along with the more expected sage, pepper, onion, garlic, and thyme.

While the turkey is cooking, the cinnamon odor fills the house, but surprisingly, when we serve the turkey and the perfect gravy my wife makes from the turkey's juices, the cinnamon has retreated to be a slight tint, so that all the flavors end up well balanced.

Since you can't all come over to my house, you might just give it a try in your own Thanksgiving bird. I like best the hot cinnamon you can get at Savory Spice Shop in the new part of Friendly Center; but the sweet cinnamons also work well. Just ask them which is which -- the clerks know their stock, and I bet you'll end up buying more than cinnamon!

*

As for personal stinkiness, I have always hated anti-perspirants. When you think of it, sweating is a completely natural function, and if you have a product that really causes your pores not to emit perspiration, what does that mean you're doing to your skin?

Besides, in North Carolina we live in a climate so humid that you have to perspire far more than in, say, Arizona to get the same amount of body temperature reduction. So (a) the climate is going to defeat your anti-perspirant rather quickly, leaving you just as sweaty as ever, and (b) if it doesn't, you'll probably die.

Nevertheless, as a civilized person I feel the need to ameliorate the olfactory experience of the people I encounter, so I searched the drugstore shelves for deodorants that were not anti-perspirants.

It's hard to find them. I came up with only two -- but fortunately, both of them are first rate: Mennen Speedstick and Dove Men+Care. I'm not sure what extra fresh would smell like, but Dove offers a range from "Clean Comfort" to "Extra Fresh."

Speed Stick, meanwhile, comes in regular deodorant and antiperspirant versions. I can vouch for the regular deodorant kind.

For me, at least, where antiperspirants left me with rashes and itching, Dove Men+Care and Mennen Speed Stick deodorants cause no irritation at all. I highly recommend them both.

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