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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 24, 2003

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


Oscars, Latifah, Bad Readers, and Great Movies

Steve Martin was by far the best possible choice as MC of the Oscars in the midst of a controversial war. He was able to be funny without malice, a sort of eminence gris who has often visited that elusive place where show business and wisdom occasionally overlap.

Most award recipients who mentioned the war at all did so in neutral ways that expressed a yearning for peace and compassion for those at risk in the fighting -- sentiments shared by all decent people regardless of their beliefs about whether the war is one that should have been undertaken.

Only Michael Moore, epitomizing the smugness of America's proudly ignorant elite, turned his acceptance speech into a mean-spirited and dishonest political diatribe against President Bush. This was to be expected, of course -- this is a man whose "documentaries" are filled with hatred and contempt for everybody who isn't fortunate enough to be Michael Moore.

What was gratifying was that almost from the moment he began speaking, he was loudly booed by many voices from the audience, while only a handful applauded.

The booing wasn't necessarily from people who disagreed with his opinions -- it was from people who abhorred his bad taste.

After all, he was being given an Oscar, not a Nobel Prize, and this was an awards ceremony, not a political rally. Genuinely talented people who oppose Bush and the war -- like Susan Sarandon and Barbra Streisand -- controlled themselves and maintained the dignity of the occasion. After all, everyone already knew their opinions.

As everyone already knew Michael Moore's opinions. All he revealed on Oscar night was his self-admiration and utter lack of judgment.

Besides the boos, the best answer to Moore's boorishness was the quip that Steve Martin, perhaps with the help of backstage writers, came up with in reply. Finding the perfect tone, Martin broke the tension and set the evening back on course. That's why he gets the big bucks.

Even though I hope the next Oscar ceremony takes place in peacetime, with this war behind us (and the other terrorist-sponsoring states in retreat without warfare), I wish the dress code would continue forever. It was so pleasant to see these show-business women wearing clothing that actually enhanced their beauty and stature, instead of the usual hideous, unflattering monstrosities most of them are persuaded to wear.

And it was amusing to watch Meryl Streep, preening and basking in the glow of her completely undeserved reputation as the greatest American actress. Clearly she thinks of herself as the heir of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. But for those who can see past the bubble of her reputation, she is nothing more than the Queen of the Acting Class, impervious to the realization that real actors never look as though they're acting, and real stars don't put on airs.

The best thing about Chicago's well-deserved best-picture Oscar is that now every studio will film a musical.

The worst thing is that most of them will be terrible and will fail miserably at the box office, and it will be ten years before anyone can get funding to make a good one.

*

I don't usually enjoy movies where much of the humor comes from white people "acting black."

Maybe it's because it always reminds me of the whole blackface minstrel tradition, of Amos and Andy, of all the racist jokes I heard as I was growing up, before I understood the human agony and evil that lay behind all that "humor."

Maybe it's also because there's always an assumption that black people are far more free than those uptight white people -- you know, the way Greek immigrants are more free than middle class Anglos.

But I know some uptight black people -- and a few that are as tightwound as any white people I've known. And I know some white people who are downright relaxed.

Black culture is simply different from white culture. And just as black people don't have to become white in order to be happy, neither do white people have to become black.

On the contrary, I think we should borrow from each other's culture exactly as much as each individual wants to borrow. But not sneer at each other when we choose not to borrow cultural elements.

The promos made Bringing Down the House seem to be a collection of minstrelish cliches. Uptight white businessman Steve Martin is transformed by associating with easygoing black escaped convict Queen Latifah. Weirdo Eugene Levy "acts black" in order to get close to Queen Latifah.

Only it's not that simple.

For one thing, Queen Latifah's character ain't easygoing. In fact, she's way more intense than Steve Martin's character.

For another thing, this movie is too well written to fall into those traps. Queen Latifah is not "big black woman." She's this particular woman, with her individual style, her individual problems, her own cultural connections. Steve Martin's character is not just "uptight white guy." Even Eugene Levy is more -- and funnier -- than the promos suggested.

Though I found it a little patronizing that the writers felt they had to establish that Levy liked big women before he met Queen Latifah.

You don't fall in love with Queen Latifah because she's big, or because she's black -- you fall in love with her because she's Queen Latifah!

I mean, if she weren't such a generous performer, she could blow anybody she wanted to right off the screen. (Yep, even Steve Martin.)

Look, there are absurdities in the movie. But it's a farce, and why not exaggerate things now and then for the fun of it? We've got some of our best performers in this film -- including Joan Plowright and Betty White, from whom we expect brilliance.

A complete surprise, however, was Missi Pyle, who plays Steve Martin's sister-in-law. In a "wacky" role, she gives it such intensity and panache that I found myself wishing she had more screen time.

*

I would have been bothered by the sheer number of openly bigoted white characters in Bringing Down the House -- because the few white racists I know are all bright enough to keep their opinions to themselves or couch them in far more euphemistic terms.

I say I would have been bothered, if it weren't for all the "Sound of the Beep" entries in support of Commissioner Yow that have appeared in the last few issues of the Rhino Times.

Seems that Trent Lott and Jesse Helms and, yes, Mr. I'm-Not-A-Racist Yow are just the tip of the iceberg.

On that score, then, Bringing Down the House is apparently a documentary.

*

I very much enjoy Janet Evanovich's series of mysteries starring semi-competent bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. At times she tries just a titch too hard to be funny, but most of the time the mix of randy humor and adventure and mystery is a delight.

You can start at any point in the series. I just recently listened to Hot Six, Seven Up, and Hard Eight on tape, and enjoyed them enormously.

However, these three audiobooks are a perfect illustration of how important the choice of reader can be.

Of course not all audiobooks can be read as brilliantly as, for instance, Will Patton's outstanding performance of Robert McCammon's Gone South and Boy's Life.

But it's a shame when the reader becomes an increasing annoyance. Hot Six, though it was an abridgement, was brilliantly read by character actress Debi Mazar. Her New Jersey accent gave the book precisely the wry, slightly self-mocking tone that the text asks for.

Seven Up, on the other hand, was read by Tanya Eby, who was so proud of being able to do the accent that she never actually got the character. So where Mazar had a slightly bored tone that made the book screamingly funny, Eby read with such earnestness that the humor was mostly gone.

Could it be worse? Oh, yes. Hard Eight is read by Lorelei King, who made the incredible choice of eschewing a New Jersey accent entirely for all of Stephanie Plum's narration.

Instead, she has a sort of over-precise enunciation that makes it sound as if she thought she were reading to people who are slightly deaf -- or slightly stupid.

The exact same enunciation that Sigourney Weaver used (brilliantly) in her performance as the patronizing villainess in Working Girl. Only for the hero, it not only didn't work, it got more and more grating as the book went on.

It wasn't because King couldn't do accents. In fact, she did voices very well for all the other characters. Only the main character, whom we listen to for hour after hour, was read as if by a patronizing schoolteacher.

*

Dean Koontz's By the Light of the Moon was also rather badly read. Apparently somebody told reader Stephen Lang that Koontz was trying to be funny or that it was a comic book, and the result was pretty awful.

But the weaknesses of this audiobook are mostly the weaknesses of the text. The premise isn't a bad one. Three characters are subdued by an egotistical scientist who injects them with "stuff."

The "stuff," after they get loose, turns out to give them comic-book-hero powers. But the scientific underpinnings are not completely ridiculous, and nobody wears a silly costume, so I can buy it.

Not only that, but the characters are a reasonably interesting mix. Dylan O'Connor is an artist who, after his parents died -- the father by suicide, the mother a victim of murder -- was left with the care of his autistic younger brother.

They are joined by Jillian Jackson, a young comedian who simply happened to be a guest in the same motel and was randomly picked to get a shot of "stuff."

The characters are interesting, and the things that happen as the story unfolds are quite gripping and satisfying.

But the pace of the book is excruciatingly slow, and the slowness comes entirely from the fact that Koontz is trying to be funny.

Jillian is stupidly prickly, so that she carries on long arguments with Dylan at times where only a complete fool would argue.

Shep, the autistic brother, is prone to reciting lists of synonyms, especially when they need his silence or his cooperation in order to survive -- which is amusing only the first few hundred times he does it.

Maybe in the printed book, it isn't so tedious -- because you can skim. But then, why should we have to skim?

Koontz can do better than this. Koontz has done better than this.

But doggone it, even when he's bad, he's pretty darn good, and the story sticks in my mind. It's not as powerful as One Door Away from Heaven, and it's obviously designed to be the first book in a franchise. And Koontz is much funnier when he isn't trying to be funny.

As long as you don't have to listen to Stephen Lang read it with an unnatural theatrical elocution, and can skim through the repetitive sections, it's worth the read.

*

I just read Ian Rankin's police novel Resurrection Men and I do recommend it. Still ...

Is it possible for a mystery novel to be too plot driven? I enjoyed these characters and the culture of the Scottish police force so much that I was almost disappointed at how twisty and surprisy the ending was. I wasn't looking for plot-cleverness. I was looking for character-truthfulness, because the writer had led me to expect it.

But I'm a quirky reader sometimes. My guess is that if you have the patience to immerse yourself in an unfamiliar (to Americans) police jargon, you'll enjoy every aspect of this book. Inspector Rebus is as dark and conflicted a sleuth as we've got outside the pages of Dennis Lehane, and remember that I said the ending was almost disappointing.

*

The reason why Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live is so good is not because the authors (Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller) are such great writers.

It's because you don't get any idea whether they can write at all.

That's because this book consists entirely of the testimony of the witnesses -- excerpts from interviews with those who participated in the events surrounding Saturday Night Live from the early days to the present.

There seems to be no attempt to correct the disagreements among the witnesses' accounts. Instead, everybody gets their say.

And because most of these people are bright, glib, and entertaining, the book is compulsively readable.


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