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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 6, 2003

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


Why Some Books Die -- Plus Schmidt, Catch Me, and Gangs

Why is it that some books live on long past the generation that first received them, while others become unreadable?

Uncle Tom's Cabin changed the world. Its portrayal of slavery as a vile institution, and of blacks as human beings with the same feelings as any white person, woke up a complacent North. Suddenly those wacko abolitionists didn't seem like mere troublemakers after all. Throughout the world, the book was hailed by critics and loved by readers.

But it's simply unreadable today. Fiction of that time was heavily over-written by modern standards, and sentimentality in modern stories has to be more cleverly concealed.

Oddly enough, however, one of the most serious charges against Cabin -- that it is patronizing to blacks and shows that the only good black people are the ones who do what they're told by white people -- is simply not true.

So how did the stereotype of an "Uncle Tom" arise?

Not from the book -- from the play. And not really from the script, but rather from the way that the black characters were portrayed by actors. Invariably played by whites in blackface makeup, they indulged in all the stereotypes of the age -- eye-rolling, shuffling, exaggerated subservience, whining, cringing.

Far from being the brave hero of the book, Uncle Tom on stage was a ridiculous figure -- a black man that any racist white could appreciate.

Another book that gets a false charge of racism applied to it is Huckleberry Finn. This is a book that is, if anything, even more antiracist than Uncle Tom's Cabin. And unlike Cabin, it is written in a way that remains completely accessible to modern readers.

The reason is plain: It was Mark Twain who largely created the American version of what Jane Austen created in England -- the popular novel. The novel written simply, clearly, with a tight focus on the characters and little or no extraneous "showing off" by the writer.

So why is Mark Twain's highly readable, antiracist novel so often the target of efforts at book-banning on racial grounds?

The n-word. The character of Jim is invariably referred to as "N----- Jim."

Why would Twain do that? Because this story is seen through the eyes of Huckleberry Finn, and Huck has absorbed all the outward forms of the racism of his era. To him, n----- is the only word he's heard to refer to black people, and N----- Jim is simply Jim's name. And yet, even though he grew up in a time and place where racism was in the air, like smog, Huck never sees Jim as anything other than a man and a friend.

This was transformative when the book appeared, and remains transformative today. But the word itself is so embarrassing -- rather the way the f-word was when I was a kid -- that people can no longer get past it.

I, for one, think it would be perfectly acceptable to have school editions of Huckleberry Finn that simply referred to Jim as Jim -- the way the musical Big River does. But the purists would scream "censorship" and "artistic integrity" and "bowdlerism" as if adapting a work to the sensitivities of a different age would drive a stake through the heart of art everywhere.

There are books, however, where the racism is not ironic at all. I just read C.S. Forester's The Captain from Connecticut, a novel about an American ship captain during the war of 1812.

Given that Forrester's Hornblower series is still in print, not because teachers are requiring it as a classic, but because volunteer readers still love it and urge it on their friends, I had to wonder why Captain was rather hard to find.

Gradually the reason become clear. It would have been impossible to write plausibly about an American ship in 1812 without dealing with the issue of black servants -- whether slave or free.

Captain Peabody has a black servant named Washington. And Washington is there for comic relief. Not that he ever does anything particularly funny. The comedy comes solely from the fact that he is black. And because he's black, the author simply takes it for granted that he's stupid and incompetent, so that when he offers advice, the advice is "funny" for no other reason than that a black man is saying it.

This is not the virulent racism of the Klan. It's the genteel racism of the British upper and middle classes, who are always amused by the behavior of their (supposed) inferiors.

But there are other reasons why a book can -- and even should -- die. Take James Hilton's Lost Horizon. It has been made into a "classic" Frank Capra movie and an inadvertently hilarious movie musical written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

When it first came out, this book captured the imagination of the world -- so much so that the word "Shangri-La" entered the English language. Everybody knew what it meant without further explanation -- and we still do.

We read it aloud in the car on our summer trip and discovered, to our surprise, that it is really quite a bad little book.

The story is very thin. A plane is hijacked and taken into the mountains of Tibet, where the passengers are taken in by the gentle monks of the monastery of Shangri-La. There they learn that the monks live an extraordinarily long time in a life of beauty and quiet contemplation, and one of their number, an English diplomat named Conway, is chosen to be the successor to the High Lama.

But Conway leaves the monastery with the young woman he fell in love with there -- only to discover that outside the valley of Shangri-La, she quickly ages and dies. The rest of the novel is about his struggle to return to take his rightful place among the monks.

Surely a story like that should still work -- and, told in its simple outlines, it does, rather.

Reading it, however, is entirely different. Because the philosophy that makes Shangri-La a heaven on earth is, in fact, nothing but a catalogue of all the stupid ideas of traditional elitist "liberalism."

Moderation in all things -- including chastity -- is the great secret of Shangri-La, along with a sort of primitive communism. As if jealousy and dominance and laziness were not hardwired into the human psyche and could simply disappear if everybody would just slow down and relax a little.

But just as in Animal Farm, all the equality and moderation disappear when you look a little closer. The monks who live this delightful and near-eternal life are supported by the labor of the natives.

Apparently these natives -- like "docile natives" in all colonial myths, like the "happy slaves" in the Southern American myth -- are so worshipful and eager to please that they don't mind supporting a class of parasites who boss them around and do nothing productive.

You see, we have lived through the sexual revolution, the discarding of rules that Lost Horizon advocated. Indeed, Lost Horizon is certainly one of the contributing factors -- its popularity helped persuade people that the old moral rules were keeping us from true happiness, and we had only to discard them to turn our world into paradise.

Look around you. Did it work? Are people happier now? On the contrary. We've learned -- whether we admit it or not -- that the old ideas of monogamy, fidelity, hard work, responsibility, and self-sacrifice are far more conducive to happiness than the utter selfishness and irresponsibility that are so delicately euphemized and philosophized in Lost Horizon.

In reading Lost Horizon, we were alternately bored out of our minds by its ponderous, portentous pace and driven to laughter or rueful head-shaking by its childish yet elitist world view. In its own way, Lost Horizon has the same assumption that Captain from Connecticut has -- that the lower classes are different from and inferior to the more sensitive, wise, and worthy upper classes.

*

Which brings us to my candidate for the worst movie of the year.

I'm speaking of About Schmidt.

But before we bury this movie, let me praise it. All the actors give exquisitely fine-tuned performances. The set decoration is as real and rich as any I've ever seen. This would be a great movie, except for one tiny little problem.

It was written by elitist snobs whose hatred of ordinary people is matched only by their ignorance.

Just as Forester's character "Washington" is supposed to be amusing only because he's black, so also the characters in About Schmidt are supposed to be funny only because they're so ... middle class.

Whether the characters are kind or mean, well-meaning or conniving, in the eyes of this movie they're all so amusing. Look, says the film. Look how silly these middle-class people are, with their bookless lives, their tv-watching and their Winnebago-driving, their foolish attempts at philosophy, their blindness to how stultified and empty their lives really are.

Except -- it's all a vicious lie. The character of Schmidt himself is as falsely written as I've ever seen. A man doesn't reach an executive position in a company without at least some social skills -- but Jack Nicholson's character has absolutely none. A man as inept as this simply couldn't have survived to retirement in a corporate culture. He's as naive as a child.

Schmidt is further dragged down by contradiction and cliche. For instance, at a crucial moment his daughter says, "Now you take an interest in my life?" and Schmidt has no answer. He's guilty -- he's never paid attention to her until it was time to warn her that the guy she's marrying is really awful (because he has a bad hairdo and sells waterbeds).

Except that we've already seen a montage of Schmidt's memories of his daughter, and the message was clear: He was there. He bathed her as a child, he was at her school concerts, he was part of her life. He did take an interest in her.

But the writers want to have all the cliches whether they contradict each other or not.

I've never met these writers, but I know them. They're the undergraduate "intellectuals" who sneer at the athletes and the business majors whose lives are so empty because they don't know Faulkner or Pound and wouldn't understand Beckett or Ionesco.

Here's the lie that is the very foundation of this movie: Ordinary middle-class Americans don't experience the same high and lofty feelings that intellectual and artistic people do. Only a few -- like Schmidt -- ever wake up to an understanding of how hollow it all is.

The truth is the opposite. The only people I know who truly lead empty, shallow, meaningless lives are those intellectuals who sneer at the ordinary person and imagine that because they have read some books and know the right things to say about them, they are somehow superior.

Life is life, love is love, death is death. Intellectuals and artists have the same fundamental desires and fears and ambitions that other people have. They just insist on talking about them more, and justifying their sins with more elaborate lies.

About Schmidt is a movie that hates all the people I love best, and lies about their lives.

Fortunately, because it's also tedious and boring, relatively few people will see it, so it won't do much harm.

*

Catch Me If You Can is a delight -- a comedy based on real events that doesn't have to exaggerate or ham it up in order to be fascinating and funny. Leonardo di Caprio and Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken give deliciously understated performances -- well, understated for Walken, anyway -- and I enjoyed every minute of the film.

As with all good comedy, there is an underlying throb of truth and pain, and the writing and the acting do a good job of keeping it real, never slapping us in the face with either the pain or the comedy. Everybody is understandable, even when they do really awful things. We delight in the hero's audacity even as we hope he gets caught.

It is hard to believe a film this good, this honest, this real actually has the name Spielberg anywhere near it.

This movie has to take its place with Empire of the Sun on that nearly empty shelf labeled "Spielberg movies that tell the truth."

*

What you think about a movie depends so much upon the expectations you bring with you into the theater. I expected Gangs of New York to be unwatchably pretentious and silly; I saw it with someone who expected it to be brilliant and moving.

As a result, I came out saying, Wow, this was way better than I thought it would be -- but my friend came out saying, What a disappointment. Is this all?

Both responses are accurate.

We did agree that the acting in this film is superb. Scorcese knows how to choose excellent actors and film their performances to the best advantage. Cameron Diaz, Leonardo di Caprio, and Daniel Day-Lewis do some of the best work of their careers, and we revel in their portrayals.

You have never seen a period movie more convincingly and lushly designed. You feel like you've been to a real place; you almost want to wash the dirt of mid-19th-century New York off your face and hands as you leave.

As a revenge story, it's a lot of fun. Daniel Day-Lewis plays "the Butcher," one of the most extravagant and delightful villains of film. Though his accent is one never heard on planet Earth before, he's seizes his many opportunities to play the melodrama so realistically that you almost believe someone like this might have existed.

There are those who say that Daniel Day-Lewis "stole" the film from di Caprio, but this is only said by people who have no idea what it means to "steal" a film. Daniel Day-Lewis couldn't steal the film -- it was given to him by the writers.

Di Caprio once again -- just as he did in Titanic, just as Tom Cruise did in Rainman -- plays the root character, the person through whose eyes we experience the story. All the cool stuff is handed, by the writers, to someone else. In Rainman, it was Dustin Hoffman. In Titanic, it was the ship. And in Gangs of New York, it's Daniel Day-Lewis and the almost-equally-flamboyant Cameron Diaz.

And, like Cruise, di Caprio does his job so brilliantly and effortlessly that ignorant critics have no idea how hard it is to be "ordinary" and "real" and still carry a film.

Catch Me If You Can gave di Caprio a chance to do much more flamboyant and interesting things -- but I daresay even he would have to admit that it was a lot harder to bring off his performance in Gangs than his performance in Catch Me.

Still, I can't really recommend Gangs, despite all its virtues. Or rather, I recommend it, but with serious warnings.

First, this film is egregiously, excessively, and, by the end, downright stupidly violent. It shows that Scorcese, like too many other filmmakers, has no idea how men really behave in war. He has this vision that when two street gangs collide, everybody is fighting to the death.

Nonsense. True killers make up only a small fraction of any fighting force. Most "fighters" -- even in an untrained mob -- are terrified and fight primarily to keep the other guy from hurting him.

In other words, we see far too many people get killed or suffer grisly wounds. It is simply unreal -- it is a fantasy of gore. It makes you wonder what need there is in Scorcese that makes him wallow in such stuff far beyond what reality actually requires. Reality is awful enough.

Second, the film is false for another reason: Somebody's missing. Where are the people doing the work? If any neighborhood in New York consisted almost entirely of criminals and gangs who do nothing but hang around drinking, robbing, whoring, and killing, then whom would there be to rob?

This film is as about as truthful a depiction of lower class life in that era as the Indiana Jones movies are truthful about the life of archaeologists.

Third, the film pretends to be telling some great truth about America. Thus we are treated to occasional ironic juxtapositions of recruitment for the Civil War and the wooden coffins bringing back the bodies of dead soldiers.

But by the end, it becomes clear that the main story of the movie has nothing whatever to do with the main story of America. The people who start and carry out the anti-draft riot, the people who are fighting the war, the immigrants coming off the ships -- they remain absolutely and completely outside the story of the movie.

Instead, the movie remains a bloody but also kind of silly revenge story, which is imperfectly disguised by the flamboyance of the writing and the skill of the acting and directing.

Perhaps the most annoying lie in the film, however, is the highly visible black guy who hangs with the gang. You see, Daniel Day-Lewis's gang is the nativist, anti-immigrant, anti-black group. So di Caprio's gang has to represent good modern liberal sentiment -- and therefore they have racially egalitarian views on race that are ludicrously anachronistic.

It's hard to think of a group in America in that period that was as virulently anti-Negro as the immigrant Irish. But it wouldn't do to show di Caprio and his team as a bunch of haters of blacks -- that would make the modern audience cringe.

The promos for this film are full of talk about how this tells the "true" story of America, and indeed Scorcese's whole career seems to be devoted to telling us the "ugly truth" about America.

Well, a lot of ugly stuff happened -- terrible things -- but America became the country it is today because the overwhelming majority of the people rejected the violence and corruption and hypocrisy and exploitation that this film revels in.

So in telling "the truth," Scorcese completely misses all the people who actually created America -- the hardworking people, the self-sacrificing people, the non-violent people who did their duty.

But ... how could pretentious filmmakers and their intended audience of elitists feel superior to most Americans if they actually showed the truth, that America was built and is sustained by the regular people that About Schmidt despises and Gangs of New York ignores?

*

For those who would like to brighten a winter night with a very funny comedy, come see the Summit Players' production of "Once Upon a Mattress" on Friday and Saturday of next week -- January 17th and 18th (7 p.m. at the LDS meetinghouse at 3719 Pinetop Rd. in Greensboro).

This musical spoof of the story of The Princess and the Pea is lots of fun, and for those who have seen our past production, there are lots of familiar faces and some wonderful new performers, too.

As always, admission is really free (no donations accepted). But you have to sit on hard folding chairs. Our job is to make you forget how uncomfortable the seating is. And I think we can do it!


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