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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 21, 2018

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

Tag, Mary Renault, Hormel Pizza Wrap, Ring Rhyme

Last Tuesday night my wife and I decided to go to the movies. We had either seen or rejected every film playing except Tag.

The premise of Tag is that a group of boys began an ongoing game of Tag in junior high, and it never ended. Even now, as adults, they spend every May seeking each other out, even if it requires a lot of travel, and then tagging each other. Whoever is the last one tagged lives in shame until the next May.

The movie opens with an overview of how outrageous some of the tags have been -- when someone gets tagged graveside at the burial of a loved one, for instance.

At the end of the movie, we're reminded that while the incidents in the movie might be fictional, there really was (and presumably is) such a game, which was written up in the Wall Street Journal. The pictures at the end show that not all the players are still in the good physical shape of the actors in the movie, but how many of us are? It's the actors' job to remain fit and trim.

Maybe because it's reality based, Tag doesn't go all the way to Hangover territory in its search for humor, but the writers clearly knew no other way to be funny. No wit. No character or relationship humor. Only slapstick and elaborate set-up gags.

Because it doesn't go quite as far, it isn't quite as funny.

The biggest difficulty in making Tag funny is that it's very hard to care about any of the characters. And that partly comes down to casting.

Ed Helms is clearly the main character of the story, and Helms's whole shtick is that he always plays a jerk. We watch him, we're sometimes amused by him, but it's impossible for me, at least, to care what happens to any character I've ever seen him play. In any movie or TV show, ever.

In casting this movie, they made sure that if they cast any more-charismatic actors, the script gave them no opportunity to be more likeable than Ed Helms. Thus Jon Hamm, playing the most financially successful of the characters, comes across as vaguely resigned to everything that happens -- showing no sign of actually caring.

Hannibal Buress plays Sable (that's a non-racist name for a black guy, right?), written as utterly charmless (though Buress can't help occasionally showing flashes of life). Jake Johnson, late of New Girl, plays Chilli, the ne'er-do-well that we're supposed to like, and he comes closer than any of the other actors to bringing that off.

Jeremy Renner brings his earnest-hero face to this movie, playing Jerry Pierce, who in thirty years of playing has never been tagged. Now he's about to get married, and for a stupid reason decided to hold the ceremony in May, making it almost a taunt, daring the guys in the game to tag him at his wedding.

We are given several women, as well, though a game that began in junior high definitely has a no-girls-allowed policy. Isla Fisher is wonderful -- the best character in the movie -- as Ed Helms's wife, who is more grimly determined to keep the game going than any of the guys. But she is given nothing to do except be the tag-fanatic wife.

Rashida Jones plays an old flame of Jon Hamm's and Jake Johnson's, but we are given no clue what she sees in either of them -- or, for that matter, except for general prettiness, what makes them so fascinated with her.

The "gags" are quite violent, especially when they start running into booby-traps set by Jerry. Most of these booby-traps could have been fatal -- for instance, the log that knocks down one of the characters could have struck him in the head if he had bent over a little, and it sends him flying far enough that his neck could easily have been broken in the fall.

So even as we chuckled, we felt uncomfortable. These guys clearly don't care whether the other guys live or die. Why should we?

This story can't work unless we like these guys, but there's no chemistry between them, no glimpse of humanity in them, nothing to make us care whether they succeed or fail.

Here's the thing: We enjoyed ourselves watching Tag. We were never tempted to walk out (though I got weary of the fact that the characters didn't seem to know adjectives that didn't begin with f). Not walking out isn't the highest praise I can give to a movie, but it's something; and there were many amusing moments, so I wasn't bored much.

At the end, after showing us pictures and videos of (presumably) the real guys playing the real game of "adult" tag, along with a shot of the real Wall Street Journal article about them, there was the standard disclaimer: Any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.

And I can only agree that no character in this movie resembles any human being, living or dead. I would name the writers, to affix the blame for this where it belongs, but listing their names would only encourage them.

There are some fairly standard techniques to make screen characters likeable and give them relationships we care about. Before their next foray into comedy, these writers need to learn some of them.

For instance, they should watch the ensemble-building techniques in Twister or You've Got Mail, where we are led to care about and like a group of characters with far less screen time than the tag-players in Tag.

It can be done. It wasn't done. And that's a shame.

Do I recommend this movie? Well, if you have a few bucks to burn and you've seen everything else that's in the theaters, this one won't make you ashamed to have been in the theater to witness it.

But every one of these actors has been in better movies, playing better roles. And I don't think any of them will want you to judge their careers by this film.

*

I first read the Greek novels of Mary Renault in my twenties, and I was enthralled. I started with The King Must Die, a retelling of the Theseus myth, and Renault created a vivid, unforgettable reality. The world of Bronze Age Greece (from an era before Greeks were actually Greek) reflects her complete knowledge of Greek life, history, and culture -- along with a deep understanding of human nature.

Theseus is the great hero of Athens. Renault takes us through his childhood, growing up as a boy with an unknown father and a priestess mother who is daughter of the king of an obscure kingdom on the coast of the Peloponnese peninsula.

In Renault's novel, the gods are active characters -- Theseus believes that in some way the god Poseidon is his father, and he receives clear messages and help from him. Yet we are always able to see that what Theseus believes to be the work of a god could just as easily be a natural phenomenon.

Renault's greatest gift, though, is that even in a first-person narrative, where every observation and attitude comes from Theseus himself, we are able to get inside his relationships with other people.

There are quite a few tragic characters, not least Theseus himself, but there is never a sense of futility in The King Must Die. Quite the contrary -- we come to see that Theseus actually achieves great things and makes the world a better place for most of the people he leads or rules over. In a way, Renault has created a virtual textbook in leadership.

The sequel, The Bull from the Sea, is a more frustrating book than The King Must Die, largely because she has to work hard to fit all the mythic material into it. It takes a while to warm to his lover, the Amazon Hippolyta, though eventually we do; yet the tone of the book becomes sadder and sadder, in part because it is written in first person, so that while narrating events, Theseus is clearly aware already how badly things are going to turn out.

I recently listened to the very good Audible.com recording of both novels, narrated ably by Kris Dyer, and it works as well as when I read it in print many years ago.

Because Mary Renault (born in Essex, England, as Eileen Mary Challans) was lesbian, and most of her novels depict gay relationships (usually between men), she has sometimes been tagged as a "gay author." She rejected any such label during her lifetime, and was rather outspoken in refusing to identify herself primarily by her sexual orientation.

In fact, when I first read her Greek historical novels it never crossed my mind that she might have a gay agenda. Rather, she wrote about Greek life and culture with accuracy, which meant including homosexual characters and relationships where they happened to crop up, never making that big a deal about them.

When you consider that even as late as the rule of Hadrian as Roman emperor, it was well-known and little-cared-about that Hadrian spent many years in openly gay relationships, even when he was traveling with his wife, Renault made the right choice not to make a big deal about homosexuality in historical Greece.

She doesn't depict any kind of sex in any graphic way; what matters to her are human relationships. So anyone can read her novels without having to make political or moral decisions.

I'm going to work my way back through all her other novels as I did with The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea, because Renault is one of the finest historical novelists ever, and as I get older, I have realized that it can be very rewarding to revisit stories that meant a lot to me in my youth.

Few novels can bear rereading, but Mary Renault has produced several works that join that illustrious company.

I suggest that you also consider reading Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy, about the life of Alexander the Great; The Last of the Wine, about a student of Socrates during the Peloponnesian War; and The Mask of Apollo, about an actor in the time of Plato.

Renault also wrote a biography of Alexander the Great, The Nature of Alexander, which I quite enjoyed.

*

In my continuing search for good snack foods, I picked up Hormel Natural Choice Pepperoni Pizza.

It isn't a pizza at all, it's a tortilla wrap, and while it contains pepperoni and mozzarella cheese, it has no tomato sauce.

That's a good thing, because you can pull it from the package and eat it without any mess at all. And it's delicious. So if you want a substantial snack while traveling, this is worth taking along.

Because you're supposed to keep it refrigerated, you don't want to take it along on an outdoor hike in the summer -- but inside an air-conditioned car or on airplane flights, it should be good for many hours.

And if you're prone to getting hungry at inconvenient times -- like while you're writing a column that is way overdue -- this is a good mini-meal that can be eaten without mess, even when you have to set it down between bites.

*

I have no idea how you can ever get a copy of the book Trzysta przekadów dla fanów pod nieba skonem: Ring Rhyme J.R.R. Tolkiena w jzykach ywych, martwych i zmylonych, let alone learn how to pronounce the title.

But in the midst of that long stretch of Polish words, you can find the words "Ring Rhyme" followed by "J.R.R. Tolkiena," which means "by J.R.R. Tolkien."

The book consists of a series of translations into a lot of languages, of the rhyme engraved on the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings.

The original is:

Three Rings for the Elvenkings under the sky,

Seven for the Dwarf Lords in their halls of stone,

Nine for mortal Men, doomed to die,

One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne,

In the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.

One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them.

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.

Lines 6 and 7 are engraved in Elvish script on the inside of the One Ring, and this verse is extremely important in the story. By the time you're through reading the trilogy, you pretty much have those two lines memorized.

But this book, published by the Silesian Fantasy and Science Fiction Club (lski Klub Fantastyki) and edited by Tadeusz Andrzej Olszaski, contains so much more! Most European languages are represented, along with many fictional, artificial, and real languages from around the world.

Tolkien himself created the versions in the language of Mordor and in Elvish languages. Then there's a translation into "Basic English," a simplified version of English designed by Charles Kay Ogden as an aid for teaching English as a second language.

Some of Tolkien's special vocabulary is replaced -- "Elfrulers" for "Elvenkings," "Dwarfleaders" for "Dwarf Lords," and "mortal Men" becomes "Men who will become dead."

That master couplet (lines 6 and 7) becomes: "One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to open their places, One Ring to put them into the dark prison together."

I can't read most of the languages in this book, but I can sound many of them out, and it's fascinating to see how the verse is transformed into all these different languages.

It's not dissimilar to reading Le Ton beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language, by Douglas Hofstadter, a magnificent and very long book about the glory and impossibility of translation. Hofstadter challenged practically everybody he knew to write a translation into English of a short poem by French poet Clement Marot.

They could try a literal translation or attempt a poetic one, sometimes trying to duplicate the rhythmic or rhyme patterns of the French original, sometimes trying to convey the same feeling in free verse.

By the end of the book, you have the poem memorized -- in the sense that you recognize, in every translation, some aspect of the original. Many of the translations are pretty good; not one is perfect, because if this book has one message, it's that real translation of a work of literature is quite impossible.

That same message is conveyed by Ring Rhyme. The Basic English version shows how even a version of English requires changes that revise the meaning as well as the music of the verse. (It also helps us appreciate Tolkien's skill with English language verse -- writing in the Modernist era, he shows a mastery of English far greater than is shown in most Modernist works.)

I'm assuming that the words "wersja oficjalna" mean "official version" -- that is, this is the version appearing in the authorized translation of Lord of the Rings in that language.

Often the translation is offered in the official script of that language, so that I can't make any sense of, for instance, the Thai version -- I don't even know whether the text reads from left to right or right to left. (I looked it up; it's left-to-right, and it's a syllabic rather than phonetic alphabet.) Underneath it, though, is a transliteration into roman characters, so I can at least make a feeble attempt at pronouncing it.

For me, the great fun came near the end, where we are given versions in Old English dialects. Though there has never been an official translation of the whole of Lord of the Rings into Old English (not much market for it, I'm afraid), I can't help but think that Tolkien, who reveled in Old English and translated brilliantly from it into modern English, would have been delighted with these sallies.

I'd quote from some of the Old English versions, but our modern typefonts don't have the thorn and edh characters, and you can't reproduce Old English without them.

But here's a version of lines 6 and 7, using "th" as a substitute for thorn, and "ae" for the "æ" ligature:

An Beah ealla hire to raedenne, An Beah hie to fandienne

An Beah ealla hire to gebrengenne and in thaem heolstore bindenne

Just remember that every letter is pronounced, and the vowels have about the same values as in Spanish. Reading this aloud can give you a sense of Old English. It also has the same power that Tolkien's modern-English original has.

I have no idea how you can get copies of this book. The websites where I've found it mentioned are all in Polish, which I cannot read. But if anybody is interested, I can write to a friend in Poland and see about ordering some copies.

Here's a link to what might be an online bookstore, or might be merely a review site. If you read Polish, all will become clear.

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