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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 21, 2003

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


Yummi Bears, Lions, Boomtown, Mayer, and King

Ever had trouble getting a kid to take vitamins? You might want to stop by General Nutrition Center and pick up Yummi Bears.

These little candies are, reportedly, delicious. (I'll never know, because "gummy" anything makes me gag -- it's a mouth-feel thing. But kids who won't eat good stuff like goat cheese will cheerfully choke these things down.)

But they are candy -- thirty calories from eight grams of carbohydrate, half of it sugar. Have them brush their teeth after. And keep them out of reach so they don't snack on them between meals and o.d. on Cyanocobalamine.

*

Secondhand Lions is a wonderful sentimental comedy. This story of a boy who is dumped for the summer on an isolated farm with his great-uncles, a couple of antisocial old bachelors, is full of wonderful characters and a few solid truths that take on new life when seen through the lens of this story.

The only flaw is in the adventure scenes, which are shown as one of the old coots tells the boy stories about the old men's past in Africa.

These scenes are played lightly, for laughs, as if we were seeing them as the exaggerated tales of an old man. Which is all right, but a much better choice would have been to play them the way the young boy would have heard them -- as powerful true stories with real danger and darkness.

It doesn't spoil the movie -- it simply makes it a little less than it could have been.

And I do wish a few scenes from the original script had not been cut. The scene where we find out why so many salesmen keep calling, for instance, enriched the relationships and is sorely missed. But I'm sure someone had a reason for cutting it. Maybe we'll get to see it on the DVD.

Meanwhile, this film is a breakthrough for two people. For writer-director Tim McCandlies, this is his first shot at directing a high-profile feature. (He directed the independent film Dancer, Texas Pop. 81 a few years ago.)

He refused to let anyone film Secondhand Lions until he could direct it himself, and he did a good job. (Though the danger of directing your own script is that you don't get the benefit of someone else's ideas. Who knows but what another director might have seen a different, and better, way to treat those adventure scenes?)

The other breakthrough was for Haley Joel Osment. Playing a teen role instead of a child role is a huge breakthrough. What male actor besides Brandon De Wilde ever made that transition? And Osment does a terrific job.

However, like Claire Danes, Osment still relies too much on the free-flowing tears that made him such a powerful child actor. Not that he ever overdid it -- it's just that he resorted to tears in a couple of scenes too many. It would have been better if his character had not cried so easily, so that when tears finally came, it felt like a breakthrough had been made. Or perhaps he could have been played as a kid who cried easily, who learns to toughen up a little and be as "manly" as his uncles.

But my guess is that this was a directing problem, not an acting problem -- that Osment is still young enough to play the scene as he is asked to, rather than envisioning his own part from the outside, the way adult actors learn to do. And the director was so dazzled by Osment's ability to make strong emotions absolutely real that he never realized the weakening effect of its overuse.

All minor quibbles. It's a terrific movie for all but those who are too young to let other people see them be moved by stories of good people doing good. In other words, I don't see this as a teen date movie, and while young kids enjoy it, it doesn't thrill them. I guess it's a film for grownups who love and honor people who protect children and go out of their way to bring them happiness.

*

Movies I'm dreading: From the promos, there's one movie that looks so horrifyingly bad that I can't believe they went to the trouble to edit together a second trailer for it. I'm speaking of Elf, which now has a trailer even more smarmy and loathsome than the first one.

It's incredible that a movie this obviously bad has a supporting cast that includes actors like the luminous Mary Steenburgen. What are James Caan, Ed Asner, and Bob Newhart doing in the service of an utterly talentless "comic" like Will Ferrell?

Ferrell, who holds the record for most appearances on Saturday Night Live without ever once being funny, is the neediest actor I've ever seen on the screen. The only emotion he ever projects is a desperate hunger for the audience to love him by laughing -- but people with normal levels of empathy do not respond with laughter, they respond with pity and embarrassment.

Compare Ferrell's leering performance as a naif in our modern world with Brendan Fraser's in Blast from the Past. Fraser brought a genuine sense of wonder and innocense on which the entire movie depended.

Ferrell, by contrast, looks like someone who once saw someone imitate a child and is now trying to imitate the imitation.

*

Movies I'm looking forward to: There's a new live-action Peter Pan coming that looks like it's everything that Spielberg's wretched Hook was not.

It's faithful to the original, and not just in the events of the story. This Peter Pan seems to have captured the darkness, the fearfulness that underlie the great children's stories.

At the heart of the great children's epics there are always loss, betrayal, jealousy, a potential for tragedy, and a deep yearning for love.

That's the point that so many people who try to make bright, happy children's stories completely miss. Kids want bright happy lives. They want stories that cathartic -- full of pity and terror.

It's adults who want to escape from the dangers of real life. Kids want to escape from the boredom of real life.

The director is P.J. Hogan, who also co-wrote it with Michael Goldenberg (and, of course, the original playwright, J.M. Barrie, but he's dead so he didn't take up much time at the meetings). Hogan first came to the attention of American audiences with Muriel's Wedding, and this is his first directing gig since My Best Friend's Wedding, one of the great romantic comedies -- not to mention the best musical of the 90s.

*

John Mayer's long-awaited new album, Heavier Things, is in the stores now, and it's as good as we hoped for. Though, come to think of it, if you're one of the ones eagerly awaiting the album, you probably already have it by now.

A singer-songwriter with a powerful new sense of both music and poetry, Mayer doesn't suffer from the normal "sophomore slump." In other words, this album isn't all the songs that weren't good enough to make it onto the first album.

Instead, Mayer shows growing maturity and mastery, and if the overall effect is like a late afternoon of melancholia, well, that's the primary emotion of the age of romance -- the late teens and early twenties -- and Mayer has tagged it exactly.

*

I recently saw Boomtown for the first time. This cop drama (Friday, 10 pm, on NBC) may well be the best of a genre that has some of the best writing and acting on television.

Donnie Wahlberg, the series star, has a commanding presence on screen. But no actor is better than his material, and Wahlberg and a cast of fine actors are given scripts worth acting.

Graham Yost, a writer on Band of Brothers (so he and Wahlberg are working together for the second time), is executive producer, supervising a team of outstanding writers -- especially Michelle Ashford, who wrote the unforgettably moving -- and clever -- episode "Lost Child."

*

The people who give out the National Book Award have decided to give Stephen King a lifetime achievement award. A surprising move for an organization that always seems embarrassed when they give their prizes to books that are marginally more readable than Booker Prize winners.

But don't worry. There's no chance that King will feel honored, not by the time the literary elite are through with him.

With their normal good manners and kindness to their fellow human beings, here is the typical elitist response:

"He is a man who writes what used to be called penny dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any literary value there or any aesthetic accomplishment or signs of an inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy."

That was from Harold Bloom, a Yale professor, as quoted in the New York Times. Wasn't that a nice tough, for Bloom to deny King's basic humanity?

The Times also quoted a former CEO of Simon & Schuster, Richard Snyder: "He sells a lot of books. But is it literature? No."

In case any of you believe this drivel, let me assure you that King's work most definitely is literature, because it was written to be published and is read with admiration. What Snyder really means is that it is not the literature preferred by the academic-literary elite.

The academic-literary elite prefers literature that cannot be properly understood unless you have your secret English Department Decoder Ring.

In other words, folks, if you and I like a book well enough to choose it for ourselves and pass it along to our friends, it's not "literature."

And if you pick up a book that these guys call "literature," then you probably won't enjoy it. Certainly you won't understand it unless you have paid money to an English professor to teach you how to read it properly.

It's sort of an English Ph.D. Full Employment Policy.

The snobbery being directed at King is not because he's a bad writer -- there is no evidence that any of those attacking King's work have actually read any of it. Or if they have read it, they've read it with such hostility and ridicule that the story never had a chance.

No story can survive a hostile reading.

The reason they're attacking King is because of the kind of thing he writes. They show no recognition of the fact that the readers of contemporary fantasy are very choosy, and King is the towering figure in this field. These readers have high critical standards -- they just didn't learn them at school.

Readers in most genres -- especially speculative fiction -- are author-centered and extremely sensitive to the differences between good and bad writing. They just have a different set of standards.

But the literary elite have saved themselves a lot of time and effort. Instead of reading enough in any of the genres to understand the principles that divide good from bad storytelling in each of them, they simply despise them all. This way they only have to learn to understand one very narrow kind of literature and can pretend the others don't exist.

And if anyone dares to suggest that a writer like King is worthy of honor and emulation, they respond like a bunch of boys in a treehouse feverishly putting up signs saying "No grils aloud!" Their ignorance is topped only by their bigotry.

Meanwhile, though, King will have the last laugh. This sort of thing has happened before.

Hardly anyone reads the "great writers" of the Elizabethan era, and instead we honor most a playwright who wrote to win the pennies of the shopkeepers and apprentices.

Whom do we remember and read most from the 1800s, not in English classes, but for our own pleasure? Charles Dickens, who wrote serials for the newspapers. Louisa Mae Alcott, who started with dime novels and ended with children's fiction. Mark Twain, whose books were sold by subscription and who was despised as a hack until the French noticed him. Jane Austen, a "mere" writer of women's books.

King will be remembered when all the writers favored by his disparagers are forgotten. It is King who will teach our grandchildren what America was in our time.

The hilarious thing is that most of King's critics would probably praise Edgar Allan Poe as an important American writer -- even though his most noted work is definitely in the oogly-boogly category. He's been dead long enough for the stink of popularity to have faded, apparently.

Meanwhile, these bile-spitters heap public scorn on a man's life work, with so little regard for normal human civility and courtesy that any award King might receive will be utterly poisoned before he gets it.

Frankly, I think he should show the same dignity that Oprah showed when Jonathan Franzen disdained having the Oprah's Book Club label put on his pretentious little book. She withdrew her invitation to her show, so she didn't have to sit down and talk with a man who had publicly spat on her.

You see, Franzen forgot that Oprah is a real person, with actual feelings -- but Oprah did not forget. Likewise, these elitists are speaking of Stephen King as if he were a machine or an animal, not a human being who has done no harm and much good in his life.

King should decline the award. It demeans him to receive an award from a literary community too stupid to have given him a regular National Book Award years ago.

Meanwhile, the elitists live inside a tiny little box of repetitive, hackneyed, trivial "visions."

Shhhh. Don't knock on the outside of the box. They think it's the whole world, and they're happy that way.


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