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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 10, 2003

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


Hours, 10 Days, TVParty!, Mysteries, Lies, and Chocolate Cashews

I saw The Hours and here is what I learned:

All women are secretly lesbians dying to kiss other women, especially if a child is watching. Their lives are ruined even by well-meaning men, and so they go through life on the verge of either killing themselves or running away. There's no point in trying to explain this to men because they don't listen anyway. Especially cruel is a man who makes his wife live in the suburbs -- though in the city, it's the man who kills himself, especially when he can ruin a woman's party by doing so. The only happy family is the lesbian couple who have a daughter obtained through artificial insemination.

My wife tells me that none of this is true, but then she would, wouldn't she?

The life of Virginia Woolf is fascinating -- she was a truly great writer, and the segments about her provide the only truth in this movie. But the fundamental phoniness of the rest of the storylines didn't stop the director from getting some of the finest performances by actresses in recent memory.

With, of course, the Streep exception. In fact, this movie was absolutely cruel to Streep, because it constantly contrasted her with actresses who know how to create characters that seem alive instead of calculated.

Only Ed Harris is as awful as Streep, but one can't be sure whether the ghastly artificiality of his suicidal AIDS-suffering poet is a phony, overwrought portrayal of a complicated man, or a complicated portrayal of a phony, overwrought man. Streep has no such excuse.

The best thing about the weeks I spent watching The Hours was Nicole Kidman.

I am not a fan of her work -- neither her choice of roles, nor the cold and brittle way she usually works through them.

But for some reason -- perhaps the unignorable presence of an imposing false nose in the middle of her face -- she used this movie to turn in an absolutely breathtaking performance as Virginia Woolf.

My only regret is that the entire movie was not focused on her.

And not because the other storylines did not also contain great performances. Even the tiny parts were well-done; even the child actors were astonishingly good; even Claire Daynes created a delightful character utterly free of her My So-Called Life licks.

*

My wife and I walked out of an offensively self-righteous and poorly performed play at UNC-G on Saturday night, and, because we already had the services of a babysitter, decided to catch a nine-o'clock showing of that ever-popular feature, "whatever happened to be in the theaters."

As a result, I found myself sitting down to watch something that I would normally avoid, i.e., a movie containing Matthew McConaughey's face. (I resent his face, of course, because mine is not as attractive and therefore I don't get paid to have it photographed and displayed in theaters.)

I had low expectations of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days because, from the trailers, it appeared to depend on the coincidence of a man and woman both having a secret agenda.

However, I was pleasantly surprised that the writers were far more clever than the trailer would indicate. It was not a coincidence at all, but some malicious background string-pulling that put the two of them in this situation.

And when they actually start to fall in love, instead of manipulating each other by pretending to be in love, it comes in a genuinely engaging family setting. You find yourself believing, not that anything like this could ever happen, but that if it did happen, good people might act the way these characters do.

So, yes, I laughed and I believed and I wanted them to get together at the end. It's not one of the great romantic comedies -- it's not You've Got Mail or Sweet Home Alabama -- but it's not empty like Two Weeks' Notice or Forces of Nature or Notting Hill, and most things were handled with good taste (though language might offend some).

*

If you pick up this paper on Thursday, 13 February, you still have time to get to Barnes & Noble in Greensboro for Billy Ingram's signing of his book TVparty! at 7 p.m.

Compulsively readable, this is an engaging collection of stories about long-forgotten (or mis-remembered) tv shows. From the mysterious "suicide" of Superman portrayer George Reeves to tales of longlost variety shows, this is like old family gossip for people raised on television.

And check out the website at www.tvparty.com, which is the book times ten.

*

A couple of good mystery novels: Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels, about a child psychologist who occasionally "cooperates" with police investigations, is on the thriller end of the mystery spectrum, like Sandford's Prey books.

But that root in clinical psychology keeps Kellerman from going off the car-chase deep end, and The Murder Book is one of his best.

Out of the blue, he receives a 3-ring notebook containing pictures of murder victims. His friend, detective Milo Sturgis, recognizes one of them as an unsolved murder that haunted him from his early days on the homicide squad.

The story is probably more Milo's than Alex's, as Milo is forced to reexamine those early days, the anti-gay snideness he had to face and the apparent hatred his first partner had for him.

A painful story of lives gone awry, of families broken apart, of lies and machinations and money. The usual, but beautifully told. Kellerman is getting better, not so much at mystery as at fiction about human lives.

Another good thriller-as-family-centered-mystery is T. Jefferson Parker's Silent Joe. Joe Trona's father threw acid on his face when he was little. He has grown up scarred facially to a frightening degree, but not in his soul, because he was adopted and raised by a kind man, Will Trona, who also happens to be a powerful figure in LA business and politics.

Joe idolizes Will up to the moment when he is gunned down in a mafia-style hit, and Joe, in search of his adopted-father's murderer, has to explore who he really was.

Along the way he finds out why his mother abandoned him, why his father threw acid in his face, and a lot of other painful facts about himself and many other people. Good storytelling.

*

Speaking of storytelling, a recent issue of The New Yorker contained -- shocking as it may sound -- a beautiful story that actually amounts to something, entitled "Class Picture." Since it runs a serious risk of actually entertaining a casual reader, it must have been accepted by the fiction editor only because it was written by Tobias Wolff.

Centered around a visit by Robert Frost to a tony New England prep school in 1960, and a competition among the more literary students to be the one to have the right to converse with him for an hour, this story shows that you can write honestly and movingly about a character who is also a writer. Or at least you can if you're Tobias Wolff.

Especially delightful is the way he brings off a pastiche of the writing styles of talented adolescents, not making them absurdly bad or good, but simply ... representative. He has a gentle touch, even when satirizing.

And of course you have to assume it's autobiographical, or how else would he dare to put such words in Frost's mouth?

*

Why do they serve carbonated drinks on airplanes? For that matter, why do we drink them? The fluid is infused with gas, which separates from it after ingestion. At which point the gas has to go somewhere, and if we do not let it do so, it causes us intense discomfort.

It's a horrid practical joke, to strap people in seats next to strangers and then pump gases into them which they are forbidden to release except in a tiny room which always has a queue in front of it.

I just don't know who thinks it's funny. No one on my plane, I can tell you that.

*

James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me is a well-researched diatribe against right-wing and lowest-common-denominator omissions and misrepresentations in our nation's American-history textbooks.

Half the time his complaints are right on the money -- especially when he proves that when you create a history of the United States that doesn't offend anybody, it also won't interest anybody.

The trouble is that the other half of the time, his problem isn't that the textbook's author is lying -- it's that the author didn't reach the same conclusion as James W. Loewen.

Well, I can take that sort of thing with a grain of salt and still enjoy what's valuable in the book. There's nothing in here, in my opinion, that shouldn't be discussed in high school history classes -- there's just a lot that he doesn't talk about that should also be discussed.

The real problem with American textbooks is that they are too often bought state by state; even district by district is dangerous. So there are fearful bureaucrats trying to anticipate and avoid problems.

And if they go ahead and let a little truthful and interesting history through, there are always litigious parents ready to clobber any school system that picks up a book that doesn't fit their (usually ignorant) view of what history is.

Of course, I've been on the receiving end of this. It's impossible to talk honestly about the westward migration in America without including the epic migration of Mormons to the Rocky Mountains from 1847 until the turn of the century.

But in Greensboro, as almost every Mormon high school kid can tell you, the absurd falsehoods that teachers say about Mormons and Mormon history are almost as funny as the teachers' reactions when the Mormon kids challenge them.

Here's a clue for high school history teachers: I know you're used to assuming that your history students don't know diddly-squat about anything, but we Mormons do a not-bad job of educating our kids about our own history.

So when a Mormon kid in your class tells you that the "facts" you just taught about Mormons are wrong, you'll spare yourself some embarrassment if you start from the assumption that your student knows more than you do about the subject.

Especially if you got your "facts" from the anti-Mormon propaganda put forth by denominations that hate us. That stuff is about as accurate as the "facts" Goebbels used to tell about the Jews.

Thus you see that even as I criticize parents who get upset when their kids are taught unpleasant facts from American history, I can get just as testy when my own ox is being gored.

But I'd rather see people arguing about history than doing the usual: ignoring it.

Because history matters. History defines who we are, and who other people are; and if we don't understand our own history, as well as the history of other people and peoples, it's like choosing to have chronic amnesia.

*

Happy news. Planters has just come out with chocolate-covered peanuts and chocolate-covered cashews in reclosable bags instead of the traditional nut cans.

The peanuts -- you'd be better off buying the much-better double-dipped peanuts you can get in the bulk department at Harris-Teeter.

But the cashews are terrific. And because there are only two-thirds as many in the bag as in the can, I don't bloat up so badly when I suck down the entire contents in about four minutes -- which is my only way of dealing with chocolate-covered cashews no matter how large the package is.

*

People who buy houses that are cheap because they're near a landfill, and then complain that there's a landfill near their house, are simply ridiculous and not worthy of being taken seriously.

So naturally our local politicians are going to charge us all hundreds of dollars a year in order to please that handful of selfish people.

But there is a much simpler choice, that would cost far, far less. Since we have twenty years of life left in that landfill, we'd save money if the city used the power of eminent domain to buy those homes at fair market value, so the complainers could move somewhere else.

The cost of the houses has to be less, amortized over twenty years, than what we'll pay under the other plan.

And the houses wouldn't even have to be torn down. They could be rented at a low cost to people who would have to sign an agreement that they know they're getting such low rents because the houses are near a landfill.

That's what the power of eminent domain exists for. To keep a few people from costing the whole community ridiculous sums of money.

Too bad we can't do that with all the people who bought homes near an airport serving three growing cities, and then complained because the airport grew and grew.


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