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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 12, 2018

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

Neighbor, Ant-Man, Dark Emu, Into Africa

Won't You Be My Neighbor? is the story of the life and ministry of Fred Rogers, the creator and star of the long-running children's show, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

I'm not even going to mention the fact that I was always annoyed by the faulty possessive in the show's title: It should have been Mr. Rogers's Neighborhood.

Oh, wait. I did mention it.

But look, I was annoyed by a whole lot of other things when I first saw the show. It began airing nationally in 1968, when I was a drama student in college, very full of my newfound expertise.

I was the kind of snob who couldn't bear to watch Star Trek because (a) all the scientific and philosophical ideas in it were either cliches or stupid or both, (b) it had a cast of actors giving absurd performances saying and doing stupid things, and (c) pointy ears.

I also hated Dr. Who the few times I saw it in passing, because (a) the production values looked like a kindergarten class play, and (b) Daleks, the slowest, stupidest enemy robots ever created.

So you can guess why I never gave Mr. Rogers a second glance in those days. The production values were astonishingly low, the dialogue in and out of the puppet shows sounded like it had been written by one of the kids in the audience, the pacing of the show was glacial, and Mr. Rogers himself had such a low-key speaking style that he could have been labeled a controlled sedative by the Food and Drug Administration.

Then I grew up, and began to overhear more and more of the show because my kids watched it. Boring as I thought it was, I heard enough of it to realize that it wasn't actually making them stupid -- which was the reason we blocked our kids from watching Barney and Peewee's Playhouse.

In fact, once I got over the on-the-nose song lyrics, I realized that Fred Rogers wasn't talking to me. He was talking to children -- in their language, with wordplay at a level they could get.

But even so, I had no great nostalgia for the show. I certainly didn't grow up with it (I grew up with Shari Lewis and Lambchop, and with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends -- Boris, Natasha, Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Snagglepuss, Fractured Fairy Tales, Bullwinkle's Corner, and the endless "Watch me take a rabbit out of my hat!" gag).

In other words, I grew up with the best animated kids' show ever, and the gentle puppeteering of Shari Lewis.

I say this in order to stress that I didn't come to Won't You Be My Neighbor with an overflow of affection and nostalgia for the show.

But this documentary is so beautifully written, filmed, and edited that I pretty much cried nonstop through the whole thing.

Because the documentary made me look at Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, not as "children's programming" -- because the show did the opposite of everything children's programming was supposed to do -- but rather as the nondenominational Christian ministry of Fred Rogers.

It was subtler but in harmony with C.S. Lewis's notion of Mere Christianity.

Even though the show never took a stance as an overtly Christian show -- in fact, Fred Rogers made a point of being inclusive of everybody back before it was politically correct to do so -- once you understand that Rogers took a break from television in order to train and be ordained as a minister, the whole meaning of being his "neighbor" is transformed.

Lord, who is my neighbor? someone asked Jesus, and his reply was the parable of the Good Samaritan. The lesson? Whoever is kind and generous and loving toward other people is their neighbor, and the question, "Won't you be my neighbor" is both a sermon and an offer from Fred Rogers: He told children, I am your neighbor.

Here's why you have to see Won't You Be My Neighbor?: because we need to realize that there was such a man as this, who lived such a life as this, and gave so much to the least-influential, least-free segment of society.

There's a moment when, in a personal appearance, Rogers is approached by a little girl saying, "Mr. Rogers! I want to tell you something!"

He turns to her, allowing himself to be interrupted, and says, "What do you want to tell me?"

Now, any Christian who doesn't think of the words, "Suffer little children to come unto me" hasn't been paying attention.

But it gets better than this. The little girl's urgent message is, "Mr. Rogers, I like you."

And Fred Rogers's face lights up and he concentrates completely on this child's eyes and he says, "I like you, too," and you can see that he means it. And then he adds, "Thank you for telling me that."

The little girl went away knowing that she had been heard, that Mr. Rogers liked her, and that he was glad she had spoken up.

I realized how monumental a moment that was. I daresay that most children spend most of their childhood with the firm belief that nobody understands them, nobody pays attention to their wants and feelings, and nobody is even particularly glad that they're alive.

No, of course their wonderful loving parents make them feel known and appreciated all the time!

Except you can't. When you're a parent, there are times that you have to say, "I'm sorry, I can't, I have to work, I have to go away for a while," so that most kids still spend a lot of time fearing that they are ultimately a cipher in their own lives.

Now, this is not actually a special property of childhood. Most adults feel this way all the time -- at work, at school, even in their own homes, most human beings feel unmoored. Sometimes in their effort to find some kind of grounding, they can be too controlling or demanding of others -- which only leads to their being and feeling even more isolated and weak.

Mr. Rogers brought to children -- and, by extension, to the adults that they became -- the clear message that somebody knew them and cared about them.

Was he right about everything he said and taught? Oh, probably not -- though I suspect he was wrong way less often than I have been. And whenever I noticed him saying something I was uncomfortable with, I realized, Yes, but Rogers is saying, not what some political group would say, but what Jesus would certainly have said -- or actually did say.

In other words, most of my disagreements with Rogers were in areas where he was a better Christian than I am, and the film woke me up to that.

But mostly it woke me up to this: Here was a life well-lived. Here was a human being who tried to conduct his life in such a way that everyone he encountered was better for it.

Was he sometimes impatient with other people? Was he sometimes wrong in his judgment of others? The documentary doesn't conceal such lapses. But it also makes us clear that they were relatively rare.

I don't care if this documentary wins awards or makes a ton of money. I just want to make sure you know about it, so you can watch it and put this thing of beauty into your memory and make it part of your life.

Whether you happen to have grown up (or raised your kids) watching Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, you owe it to yourself to see Won't You Be My Neighbor for the sheer joy of seeing a good person doing good, using the tools that heredity, environment, and above all, the Spirit of God put in his hands and heart and mind.

I am reminded of the parable of the talents, where each servant is given a large sum of money to take care of and invest for their employer while he's away on a journey. Fred Rogers is not the one who buried his treasure; he's the one who put it out in the world to grow.

And this documentary gives us one more chance, in a single intense dose, to take the healing medicine he offered to the children he spoke and sang to.

*

In the film State of Play (2009), which only exists so that Ben Affleck, playing a senator, can deliver the line, "So how's that for a political suicide?" there's a moment after you think it's all over when Russell Crowe's character, playing a reporter, realizes that the senator's wife knows something she shouldn't have known, and Crowe races to the senator's office to accuse him of being responsible for the murder of four people.

Here's my question: What did these things have to do with each other? What actually happened to make it so the Senator could be arrested? Especially because the guy who actually did the killings now lay dead on a street in DC?

This was a high-powered movie with a first-rate cast, and the ending is completely incomprehensible to me.

This is script-writing 101: Make sure you let the audience in on the joke.

It's like the ending of Jagged Edge (1985), when the final twist is that attorney Glenn Close realizes the man she successfully defended against a murder charge is actually guilty. As the authorities haul a dead guy away, we only see his face upside down on the screen, and because people are rarely good at recognizing upside-down faces, a lot of people were not sure who it was who died at the end.

That was quite possibly an honest mistake caused by director Richard Marquand going for the quirky camera angle instead of communicating with the audience. He could have shot the scene with Jeff Bridges' face right side up, and the audience would have known exactly what happened. Instead, in those days before universal access to the Internet, it caused a lot of frustration and consternation.

Tell the story, writers! Tell it clearly. If you think, "Surely the audience already knows," think again. Even if we think we know, we don't know that we know until the film (or novel, or comic) itself confirms that it's true within the story.

It's your job, writers and directors. Do it. Every time. It's part of the contract that storytellers make with the audience. We the audience start out not knowing what happened, and we read or watch or listen to the story trusting that the writer will, in fact, tell us what happened.

*

Ant-Man and the Wasp is exactly what I hoped it would be -- a lot of fun playing around with nonsense science and endearing characters.

When I look at the list of writing credits, I see two successful writing teams: Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari (Haunt).

But right between those two writing teams, there's a fifth name: Paul Rudd, who also cowrote the first Ant-Man movie back in 2015. The same Paul Rudd who plays Ant-Man in both movies.

In case you didn't know it, it is far from usual to involve the star of a movie in the writing of the script to the degree that the Writers Guild awards him a screenwriting credit.

(No screenwriting credit is given without the consent of the Writers Guild, and they are very picky about making sure nobody can steal a credit they don't deserve -- a practice that is, or at least was, rife in the music industry.)

So it isn't just with his genial, wry, gentle, friendly style as an actor that Paul Rudd dominates this movie. He also had something to do with making sure the script was that kind of script.

Paul Rudd is, in my opinion, one of the inheritors of the James Stewart acting tradition. He can play dark and dangerous characters, as James Stewart sometimes did, but what we know him best for is his acting in roles that absolutely require that we like and trust him.

In other words, though Tom Hanks is still, I'm happy to say, alive and working, Paul Rudd is playing roles that Tom Hanks might have been given if he were younger.

And if they were to try (please don't) to remake Sleepless in Seattle or You've Got Mail right now, who but Paul Rudd could play the Tom Hanks character?

Rudd is a generous actor. Other actors are given many moments to shine; he didn't fashion Ant-Man and the Wasp into a vehicle for self-promotion. This is the most I've liked Michael Douglas in a role since Romancing the Stone, and Evangeline Lilly is getting her best role since she starred in the TV series Lost.

Laurence Fishburne is not at all wasted in an anchoring role as Michael Douglas's mad-scientist rival. And it was a joy to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a small but vital role as a scientist long stranded in "quantum space."

Which brings me to the other huge fact about Ant-Man and the Wasp. Not for one second is the "science" in this movie anything but completely, outrageously bogus.

I remember Isaac Asimov ridiculing the idea of humans shrinking to be microscopically small when he wrote the novelization of Fantastic Voyage (1966). The basic problem is this: If you have been shrunk down to be smaller than an electron, what is your body made of?

But the script knows its science is stupid, and revels in it. There's a moment when someone says, "Do you just randomly stick the word 'quantum' onto stuff?" Which, of course, is exactly what the "science" in this movie consists of.

The movie is so light-hearted, however, that it would be churlish to think that bad science is something that's actually wrong with the movie. It exists to be dumb fun, not educational!

Yet it is a bit educational, in a gentle way, as a story about the enduring need for parents and children to know and love each other.

In the promos, we've all seen Michael Douglas shrink a large building down to suitcase size -- complete with a handle on the roof so he can conveniently tote it around.

However, this is more than a one-shot gimmick. It's a huge deal when that building is stolen and two groups vie with Ant-Man's group for control of the technology inside it.

The chase scenes between bad guys and the constantly shrinking-and-growing Ant-Man team are delightful, as is Paul Rudd's turning himself into a huge giant in order to overtake the bad guy who's getting away with the laboratory building on a ferry boat.

And the running gag through the whole movie is that, because of his actions in the first Ant-Man movie, Paul Rudd is now under house arrest and cannot take his ankle bracelet out of the house. Of course he does, and it's always fun to watch him struggle not to get caught -- while his daughter, and others, try to cover for him.

If you want to have a fun time watching a movie with lots of good writing and good acting, then your best bet so far this summer is Ant-Man and the Wasp.

*

Back in May, I reviewed Domesticated and Improbable Destinies -- two highly readable accounts of recent findings in evolutionary science.

Because both archaeology and genome studies have vastly improved our knowledge of our past in the most recent decade, you have to work hard just to keep up.

Things that were stated with certainty twenty years ago are now being shown to be either completely or partially wrong, and the ideas that are coming up as possible alternate explanations are quite exciting -- though the best of the scientists making such discoveries are quick to remind us that their hypotheses, too, may soon be superceded by new information that forces yet another set of stories to be offered.

Two recent books are interestingly interrelated, though both of them are undoubtedly going to be dismissed as utter nonsense by many professionals in archaeology, paleontology, anthropology, and primatology.

Then again, I can remember how schoolbooks in the 1950s and 1960s still pointed out that the way the Atlantic coast of Africa-and-Europe seems to fit just so into the Atlantic coast of the Americas is pure coincidence. Then we started seeing some far-fetched theories about how continents move and those nestable continents really did fit together in one big continental clump.

So many scientists treated that theory as if it were an embarrassment to serious science -- but now, six decades later, the whole modern science of geology absolutely depends on the truth of the theory of floating continents -- or, as we call it now, plate tectonics.

So as I talk about the next two books, I have to make it clear that nobody knows yet how much merit these ideas have. Both books rely heavily on new evidence -- but other scientists either discount that evidence or explain it quite differently.

Let's agree, then, that I'm not endorsing the accuracy of the theories advanced, because how the heck would I know? However, they open up avenues of thought that are well worth exploring.

Let me start with the book that seems to contain overwhelming evidence to support its main points. Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident, by Bruce Pascoe, sometimes seems to be aimed mostly at citizens of Australia, mostly because the main thrust of the book is that Australians have long been taught that the Aborigines were hunter-gatherer savages, with no permanent buildings, no agriculture, no engineering, no science.

In other words, they were such a backward, helpless bunch of near-apes that European colonists were completely justified in destroying their way of life, seizing their lands, and leaving them as disinherited survivors in a land over which they once exercised complete control.

The only way this version of Australian history could be told is that almost from the first moment of settlement and early exploration, Europeans have lied, lied, lied in order to justify the displacement and, often outright slaughter of Aborigines.

Now, I'm not an Australian, but I must say that as Pascoe presents his overwhelming flood of evidence from the notes and journals of the very first explorers, he shows that even those who were trying to advance the Europeans-have-a-right-to-steal-this-land narrative recorded a lot of observations that prove that narrative to be utter nonsense.

What emerges from these early records -- and, wherever possible, DNA and fossil evidence -- is a completely different picture.

Australia is a tough land to thrive in. Most of it is either desert or so dry that it clearly ought to be desert.

But throughout the desolate Outback of Australia, the first European explorers documented astonishingly large aboriginal populations living on land that today cannot sustain life at all without trucking or piping in water.

The Aborigines were so skilled at water management that streams which nowadays only carry water a few weeks in the year used to be so constant that they were filled with fish, far inland from the sea!

There was plenty of clean drinking water, because the Aboriginal societies that worked and dwelt on the land found ingenious ways of channeling, shading, and protecting streams so that they could hold water all year.

It wasn't climate change that wrecked everything. It was sheep, and the plow.

European settlers came upon land that supported thousands and thousands of people, where root vegetables thrived and even grasses (i.e., cereals) were harvested, but they arrived following their herds of sheep.

Unlike native Australian grazing animals, sheep consume everything down to the root. None of the Australian plants had evolved under pressure from that kind of savage grazing, so once the sheep had gone over a highly productive tract of land, nothing was left alive.

The soil of Australia is dusty. With the plant cover removed by the sheep, much or most or, in some places, all of the topsoil was blown or washed away.

But it wasn't an accident that the right local crops used to grow there, because the Aborigines were perfectly aware of what those plants needed in order to thrive, and made sure they had it.

They never overharvested -- not the fields and meadows, not the fish-bearing streams. Pascoe's description of some of the Aboriginal techniques and technologies are mind-blowing in their cleverness and their example of self-restraint. Aborigines had overcome the "law of the commons," and even rival tribes cooperated with each other in maintaining the land and water that sustained them all.

Pascoe points out over and over again that many of these native Australian crops are delicious, and he urges "foodies" to create a demand for some of them, so that acres that are currently pure desert can be made productive again.

Here's the bitterest irony. Because Europeans had agriculture, they thought they knew what it looked like, and therefore, when Aborigines did not follow those practices, they "lacked agriculture" -- a claim as absurd as Columbus's idea that native Americans "had no language."

We're still constantly being told that agriculture was "invented" in the Middle East about ten thousand years ago. But Pascoe says that this is only true if you define agriculture as deliberately planting and controlling the evolution of, monocrops on plowed land.

But Australian soils hate the plow and punish those who try to use it. Instead, the Aborigines found places where desirable crops already grew, and then protected them so they could increase in scope. Harvest yields reached quite amazing levels, according to the records of the early Europeans -- even as they stole the larders that were meant to provide for community survival, and then wrecked the crops permanently by grazing over them.

By the time I was halfway through Pascoe's Dark Emu, I had completely redefined my own understanding of agriculture. The Aborigines of Australia had actually been selectively nurturing the propagation and harvest of plants for tens of thousand of years before the Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian systems of agriculture ever cropped up.

The time scales are astonishing, if only because it used to be believed that modern humans (i.e., Homo sapiens) did not reach Australia until relatively recent times.

That is now known to be utter nonsense, because humans -- not H. sapiens but H. erectus -- obviously reached Australia long before sapiens appeared in Africa.

This is why linguists are reaching the conclusion that Homo erectus must have had language, because there is no way to reach Australia without being able to make large boats stocked with necessary plants and animals, along with a large enough group of humans to sustain a colony.

And you can't make such boats and carry out such migrations without being able to communicate with each other using language. Nor could our ancestors have even communicated to each other that they should go colonize some of those lands just visible at the horizon, unless they had language.

There's a transitional zone among the islands of Indonesia and Malaysia called the Wallace Line (after Alfred Russel Wallace, the man who invented the theory of evolution before Darwin published his own version of it). To the west of that line, all the islands have Asian animal life; to the east of it, there are some Asian but also many Australian animals.

The reason this line exists is because, during the million years of Ice Ages (which we're still in, the last ten thousand years merely being a brief warm spell), sea levels fall so low that there were land bridges connecting many islands to their nearby continents.

The Wallace Line falls among the islands of the Southwest Pacific precisely where the seafloor is so deep that there was never a land bridge connecting the islands to the mainland.

In Indonesia, for instance, that line falls between Java and the islands from Bali on east. Borneo was attached to mainland Asia -- but New Guinea was not.

Instead, New Guinea and Australia made a much larger landmass than either of them separately. The Great Barrier Reef didn't exist because its ground was not under water -- you could walk to New Guinea from Australia without having to worry about sharks.

Pascoe points out that when humans -- erectus and, later, sapiens -- arrived on that Australia-New-Guinea landmass, they would first have settled at the mouths of rivers on the coastline. And those coastlines, where the earliest relics of human settlement must have been located, are now hundreds of miles out to sea, completely buried in water.

It was a different world. But this much is obvious: Throughout the last few eras of alternating land-bridges and higher sea levels, there was a lot of human interchange between Asia and Australia, all of which had to take place by boat.

One proof of this is the fact the humans carried dingoes to Australia from their apparent place of evolution -- Southeast Asia. Dingoes are transitional -- wolf descendants only partway along the path toward becoming dogs.

Meanwhile, nobody in Australia seems to have felt any need to figure out a way to transport kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and other Australian fauna to Asia. So Australian marsupials remained in Australia and New Guinea without crossing over to Asia.

Dark Emu therefore forces us to redefine our understanding of Aboriginal civilization and agriculture -- because those words certainly apply to what they had before Europeans arrived. There were many thousands of years where it now seems obvious that the highest level of civilization was to be found only in Australia, and it's quite possible that many ideas we think came much later actually originated among Australian humans tens of thousands of years before they filtered west into the Middle East.

In a way, it makes perfect sense that the idea of deliberately cultivating crops might have spread westward and northward through Asia from the Australian visitors to Asia -- or from Asians who visited Australia and saw the marvels there (marvels that were seen and then covered up by Europeans when they arrived).

Thus people in Iran and Turkey might have gotten the idea of tending to and nurturing certain grains, and caring for certain useful animals, ultimately from Australia; the "agricultural revolution" of that region then consisted only of selectively breeding the plants and animals thus being tended.

Agriculture wasn't so much invented as made more controlling ten thousand years ago. Since then, short-haired sheep were bred for ridiculous amounts of wool, and horses were bred that could pull loads and carry riders. But Australia never developed such practices because they were extremely ill-suited to Australia's climate and native flora and fauna. Besides, the Aborigines already had a balanced system that worked to a degree that can only be called perfection.

Though the digressions into Australian politics and education are a bit repetitive, most of the book is simply a beautiful and clear presentation of long-lost facts in the history of human beings in the Australian supercontinent -- Australia and New Guinea.

But the clear and excellent science that in Pascoe's Dark Emu challenges all our old misconceptions about Australian history and ecology is unavoidably much weaker in the book Into Africa, by Bruce R. Fenton and Graham Hancock.

There are a couple of other books with that same title, and in fact, "Into Africa" is only part of the subtitle. The whole title is The Forgotten Exodus: The into Africa Theory of Human Evolution.

From that title, you can see that the authors are deliberately upending the hard-won consensus that modern humans evolved in Africa and emigrated from there to fill the rest of Earth.

Here's the case that Fenton makes. There are many reasons why human evolution has been tied to Africa, and Fenton makes no effort to contradict any of the evidence for this. On the contrary, he fully accepts the fact that the first human species -- Homo habilis and Homo erectus -- obviously evolved in Africa.

Homo erectus, however, then performed the astonishing feat of leaving Africa and spreading throughout Eurasia. The species Homo neanderthalensis seems not to have evolved in Africa, however, though it interbred with Homo sapiens near the end of its sojourn on Earth.

So we know that human evolution did not happen exclusively in Africa, and the fossil record shows that Homo sapiens reached China perhaps as long ago as 260,000 years, and definitely by 80-120 thousand years ago.

There was a long-held theory that Homo sapiens evolved from Homo erectus in Asia, but there are several sound reasons why Asia was rejected and Africa was chosen as the consensus origin of modern humans -- not least because Africa has markedly more genetic diversity than humans anywhere else on Earth.

But fossil DNA is beginning to complicate the picture, and Fenton's theory is that because Australian Aboriginal DNA is found in Denisovan fossils in Siberia, it shows that Aborigines, who are definitely Homo sapiens, had already evolved and communicated with Asians from the earliest times in sapiens history.

What if, the Into Africa theory proposes, modern humans evolved from Homo erectus in Australia, and then migrated outward, reaching Africa not all that long after they appeared.

It seems obvious now, though it was unthinkable fifty years ago, that as early as H.erectus human beings achieved a great deal of mobility. Genes and ideas could be mixed and propagated from one region to another with previously unguessed-at alacrity.

There was an Indonesian supervolcano that wiped out many early hominin species by blocking the sunlight for years, destroying their habitat and perhaps driving the westward migration of Australian H.sapiens. And another climate catastrophe locked humans in Africa from 73,000 to 59,000 years ago.

Thus, instead of Australia being isolated for many thousands of years, it might well have been Africa that was the more isolated continent. (America was isolated, of course, but it also contained no hominins at all until the most recent glacial maximum was coming to a close.)

Look, Fenton knows that he hasn't proven that "into Africa" trumps "out of Africa" as an explanation of modern human life. But the questions he raises and the evidence he demonstrates suggest the strong possibility that even if "out of Africa" is partly or mostly true, it is not the whole story.

For me, the most exciting thing is that the definition of "human" has to be revised now to include at least five species: Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo denisova, Homo sapiens -- and possibly Homo heidelbergensis, which seems not to be ancestral to Homo sapiens.

Everything we used to think was uniquely the province of H.sapiens -- deliberate tool-making and tool-keeping, language, fire and cooking of food -- seems now to be shared by everybody from H.erectus on forward.

And from H.erectus on, humans seem to have been obeying the Genesis directive to "multiply and replenish the Earth, and subdue it."

Between Dark Emu and Into Africa, it seems clear that the Australian contribution to human development, propagation, and history has been vastly underestimated. While we can all look to Africa as the almost-undisputed source of H.erectus, maybe there are other places -- most promisingly, Australia -- that are also ancestral homelands for some, most, or all of us.

Here are some websites to look at, along with the two books I'm reviewing:

https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/denisovan/

http://brucefenton.info/into-africa-theory/

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