Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 5, 2003
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Ritz Chips, School of Rock, Stereotypes, and Mysteries
For those of you who miss Nabisco's Ritz Air Crisp crackers, they're back
- in a slightly different form.
Now they're called Ritz Chips, and they look like squares of flatbread.
They're a little saltier this time around -- which makes sense, since now they're
meant to compete with potato chips instead of crackers.
The packaging has a weirdly difficult closure system -- tape so stick you
can hardly get it off without crushing the bag (and the "chips"). But who
cares? The chips won't stay in the bag long enough to need reclosure, at least
not at our house.
Anybody who goes to a Jack Black movie deserves what they get. But
the promos on School of Rock looked as though Black might be pretty good
doing rock and roll, and besides, my nine-year-old wanted to see it, and
regardless of ratings, you don't send a kid to a Jack Black movie without
So I went and ... aw, what can I say? The parts of the movie that didn't
involve Jack Black or the writing were often amusing. Unfortunately, since
Jack Black was in most of the movie and the writing was in all of it, that pretty
much leaves the closing credits.
And the closing credits were terrific! Jack Black wasn't acting, he was
just rocking out with such enthusiasm that he reminded me of Chris Farley.
And the kids were terrific, because finally we were allowed to watch them sing
and play their instruments pretty much as themselves.
That leaves a lot of movie between running out of popcorn and the
closing credits. This is supposed to be a heartwarming comedy (you can tell,
because there are cute kids in it) but everything in the script is cheap -- cheap
laughs, cheap aws.
But because of terrific actors in supporting roles there were moments
that I almost didn't notice the unbelievability of everything they were forced to
say and do.
Joan Cusack took the stock monster-principal role and instead of playing
her for laughs, made her real -- which is what great comic actors, rather than
mere clowns, do. And Mike White and Sarah Silverman were wonderful as
Jack Black's roommate and his fiancee.
Alas, Jack Black is simply not in their league as an actor.
Being unable to create a believable character has never been a serious
obstacle to a great career in Hollywood. Knowing that I will get poisonous hate
mail for saying so, John Wayne's career is proof of that. People loved his
movies despite the fact that he only had two emotions: angry, and not angry.
More important, people loved John Wayne himself, partly because of the roles
he chose to play, and partly because you sensed a likeable guy behind the
But how can anybody love a Jack Black character? There is never the
slightest hint of human warmth or compassion or sensitivity. This can be
amusing in a supporting role, like the one Black played in High Fidelity -- but
in that movie we had the ultra-likeable John Cusack to pull us through the
Why do they keep putting such a hopelessly unlikeable guy on screen in
leading roles? After Shallow Hal, the movie for which the word smarmy would
have had to be invented, if it didn't already exist, why was he given another
role? Oh, that's right -- because there's no shortage of audience members
whose sense of humor is untinged with compassion. Which is, come to think
of it, exactly the sense of humor you have to have in order to think Black is
funny in School of Rock.
Which is why I have to say the most awful thing about Jack Black: I fear
that he is the next Bill Murray. Only without the emotional range.
Even if School of Rock had been mostly funny, I still would have despised
it, because of what writer Mike White and director Richard Linklater did with
the character of "Billy, the Band Stylist."
This is a ten-year-old kid who is portrayed with every homosexual
cliche in the book, and we're supposed to think it's funny.
If you showed an African-American kid with every "black" cliche that
movies used to use -- eye-rolling, slow-talking, fried-chicken-and-watermelon-eating, scared-of-graveyards, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" -- it
would be greeted with such howls of outrage that you'd think it was another
movie about Jesus by Mel Gibson.
So why isn't there a breath of protest from the gay community about
piling all the ridiculous cliches about screaming-queen homosexuals onto the
shoulders of a ten-year-old kid, just for cheap laughs in a bad movie?
The reason is simple: The homosexual activist community keeps
demanding that gay characters be portrayed on screen. But how do you know
whether a character is homosexual, when the movie involves no dating
opportunities? I mean, I could look at a movie like, say, The Dirty Dozen and
point to any of the characters and say, He's gay, and he's straight, and he's bi,
and how would you know they weren't?
So in order to show that you're showing gay characters and keep your
p.c. credentials, you have to use stereotypes. Never mind that most
homosexuals do not remotely resemble the swishy, hyper-effeminate cliche.
What I find particularly repulsive, however, is the fact that the character
being shown is only ten years old -- an age when sexual identity is by no
means locked in stone, despite the claims of many that they "always knew"
they were gay. (Let's just say that most people "always knew" things they
believe now; nobody can seriously take this as evidence of anything.)
This is not to say that there can't be a ten-year-old boy who is fascinated
with fashion and style and who is effeminate in his speech and movements.
It's just not evidence that he is or ever will be a practicing homosexual; yet it is
precisely because these cliches marked the kid as gay that he was supposed to
be "funny" in the movie.
I've known a lot of guys over the years who were quite effeminate or
spoke with a whispering lisp (not to mention a lot of guys who can switch on
these mannerisms quite convincingly when the moment requires). But only a
few of these guys ended up living as gay men.
In other words, the supposed markers of homosexuality in our society
are ludicrously not markers of anything at all, except that inside the gay
community there are those who exaggerate these traits, often to the
embarrassment of other homosexuals.
I remember watching In & Out, the Kevin Kline movie about the high
school drama teacher whose former student "outs" him at the Academy Awards
-- even though the character never suspected himself of being gay. When they
listed all the markers of homosexuality, I had to laugh, because of course
almost all of them fit me and most of my heterosexual friends -- because I'm a
theatre guy who grew up loving show tunes (including Streisand), and I tend to
hang out with people who share those tastes.
So I thought the point of the movie was going to be that these stereotypes
Instead, the movie's point was that in fact the stereotypes were all correct
-- the character was gay.
It's as if the gay community were now in sole possession of vast swaths
of American culture, while straight guys supposedly can't dance or dress
That was merely irritating in In & Out. In School of Rock, with a ten-year-old character being burdened with these stereotypes, it becomes cruel.
That's because kids that age are just entering adolescence, when social
pressure toward conformity -- especially conformity to sexual stereotypes -- is
at its most ruthless.
Middle school and high school are the place where some kids turn
vicious and start hurling epithets (and worse) at nonconformers. And this
movie flat-out gives permission to treat a ten-year-old kid who "runs like a girl"
or talks with a whispering lisp or likes to sew as if he were gay.
This can be just as vile even if it's done without hostility. What can be
more devastating to a boy just coming into the first stirrings of romantic desire
than to be labeled as homosexual by girls -- who like you because they believe
you're gay and can "talk to you like one of us."
Believe me, folks, those labels of homosexuality, while we're all supposed
to pretend they're not slander (because "there's nothing wrong with it"), can in
fact be devastating to a child, no matter what his adult sexual identity turns
out to be.
Sexualizing children is an evil thing for adults to do -- and to do it for
cheap laughs, and ultimately for money, the way School of Rock does, is simply
To which I'm sure the filmmakers would reply that they didn't show sex
of any kind, and besides, they never said the kid was gay.
My reply is simple: Don't act innocent now and pretend that you were not
depicting the kid as gay. Of course you were, and everybody who was
unfortunate enough to have watched this movie knows it.
And just because you don't show the child in pornographic scenes does
not absolve you, because you are contributing to a society in which false
stereotypes are used to torment and confuse children whose sexual identity is
still a mystery even to them.
I know it's been out for months, but I finally listened to it on tape, and I
have to say that with A Cold Heart, Jonathan Kellerman proves himself one of
the finest writers of mysteries today.
A few years ago, he was still flirting with thrillers, and there are still
elements of that in this -- as with most mysteries, it's no longer enough for
Nero Wolfe to assemble all the suspects in his parlor and say all the right
things to provoke the killer to identify himself.
Now the characters actually have to amount to something -- and with
Kellerman, he's moved into Ross Macdonald territory, where the mystery, while
still perfectly satisfying, is still a secondary concern to finding out who these
people really are.
And it's not because the idea -- a serial killer is murdering brilliant
artists just on the verge of success or a comeback -- wouldn't lend itself to
shallow thriller treatment. It's as if Kellerman were still digging in the same
mine, but coming out with diamonds where everybody else is finding tin.
And John Rubinstein's performance in reading A Cold Heart was
absolutely brilliant. An actor who has done guest shots on practically every TV
show, it is in books-on-tape that he really gets to show his chops. He can't
make a bad book seem good -- but he can make a good book feel so real that
you remember it as if it were a movie, with all the pictures in your mind.
I also read my first P.D. James mystery, Original Sin, by listening to an
excellent book-on-tape performance by English actor John Franklyn-Robbins.
I suspect that in this case, I might not have got past some of the pages-long
character explorations that stop the action cold, had I not had an engaging
actor drawing me through.
And yet ... the story and characters were interesting, and not just
because this mystery is centered around a centuries-old British publishing
Let's just say that while listening to Rubinstein reading Kellerman, I was
in constant danger of being pulled over for speeding, but listening to Franklyn-Robbins reading P.D. James, my metabolic rate slowed down so much that
farmers on tractors were behind me honking for me to pull over so they could