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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 checking.

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 wooden performances.

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 movie.

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 mean nothing.

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 themselves.

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 vile.

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 firm.

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 pass.


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