Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 28, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
D.A., Magnets, Spelling, and Eternal Sunshine
Talk about being really committed to a new series: ABC has launched a
terrific new tv show, The D.A. (Friday nights), with an order for only four
That's right. If America doesn't notice this show with only four episodes
on the deadest TV night of the week, the plug will be pulled.
And that would be a shame.
This show has writing that is as morally complicated and quirky as
anything by David E. Kelley -- but without the showoffery (think "Denny
And such a cast! Besides Steven Weber (once of Wings) in the title role,
as a D.A. who tries to balance politics with his responsibility to the public, it
has J.K. Simmons, a character actor who has dazzled us on Law and Order,
Oz, and as the newspaper editor in Spider-Man.
Bruno Campos nearly steals the show as Deputy District Attorney Mark
Camacho. And Sarah Paulson, as the chief deputy D.A., has one of those rare
women's roles with teeth.
Of course, if you don't actually have a Nielsen box, I suppose it doesn't
matter whether you watch the show or not. It will probably tank, and another
chance for terrific TV will go down the tubes.
Then again, if there are never more than these four episodes, keep in
mind that you still have a chance to catch the last two.
After all the weird stuff about how magnets can heal you, which kept
resisting any kind of scientific testing, it turns out that under certain
conditions, and for certain people, it works.
It was accidental. When seriously depressed people went in for a
diagnosis using a fairly recent kind of equipment -- echo-planar magnetic
resonance spectroscopic imaging (EP-MRI) -- they came out acting "jovial,"
according to the story by Emily Harrison in the April 2004 Scientific American.
It turns out that a one-kilohertz pulse rate "matches the natural firing
rate of brain cells," which apparently has a therapeutic result with a high
percentage of bipolar patients. It seems to have no negative side effects.
And it has no effect whatsoever on non-bipolar patients. So it won't
become the new party "drug." Except perhaps at parties of bipolar depressives.
Some cures come about through years of painstaking and expensive
research. And some are happy accidents. But even the accidental cures
require that somebody notice that the cure is happening and take it seriously.
Meanwhile, the rest of you can go on taping magnets to various parts of
your body. Nobody's shown that it causes any harm, and you never know.
With all the brainpower at the American Enterprise Institute, the
conservative free-market think-tank that publishes the magazine American
Enterprise, you'd think there'd be at least one person who knew how to spell
Yes, I know, "guerilla" is listed as an alternate spelling, and spell-checkers will leave it alone.
But educated people -- editors, anyway -- should know the origin of the
word in the Spanish word "guerra" ("war"). Just as the silent c in "arctic" (yes,
it really is supposed to be silent) and the silent t in "often" (yes again) preserve
some of the history of those words, so should the rr in "guerrilla."
Part of the reason English spelling is so hard is because we went through
massive pronunciation changes after some aspects of spelling were locked in
But the benefit of this, and the reason most people are reluctant to
change the old system, is that our spelling preserves many of the relationships
For instance, "debris" and "chaise longue" and "panache" speak of their
relatively recent French origin. If we spelled them "dubree" and "shez long" and
"punash," how would other people know that using those words makes us
continental and cool?
Then again, if we spelled them phonetically, we wouldn't have people
speaking of their "chaise lounge," either.
How would we tell "guild" from "gild" or "ma" from "maw" or "faux" from
"foe" if we didn't keep some of those extra letters around?
Then again, I'm quite ready to part with "through" and replace it with
"thru"; ditto on replacing "though" with "tho." But our fearless editor won't let
If even the conservatives at AEI are tossing spelling to the winds, let's all
pick our favorite spellings and leap out into chaos!
There's a new John Dunning mystery about Cliff Janeway, the ex-cop
who deals in rare books and also solves the odd murder case here and there.
The Bookman's Promise is a worthy entry in the series, with an
intriguing premise about a lost diary of Sir Richard Burton's (the 19th-century
explorer, not Liz's quondam ex-husband twice over). If you haven't been
reading the series, this is as good a place to start as any.
Good as Dunning's mystery novels are, I must confess to being
disappointed that he would write these paragraphs on page 22:
"This is why I am not religious. If and when we do learn the true secret
of the universe, some kind of religion will be there to hide it. To cover it up. To
persecute and shred, to burn and destroy. They stay in business by keeping
us in the Dark Ages.
"Darkness is what they sell."
This paragraph has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the novel.
It's a statement of Dunning's personal beliefs, pure and simple.
Clever as Dunning is, he is apparently not self-reflective enough to
realize that he is disparaging the religions he doesn't believe in exactly as
ardent missionaries always attack the belief systems they're trying to replace.
And when you consider that our deepest plunges into the Dark Ages in
the twentieth century came from Nazism and Communism, which pretended,
as Dunning does, that their own belief systems were not "religions" but rather
"the truth," it suggests that Dunning simply hasn't been paying attention to
world events since 1917.
At dinner the other night, with a couple of philosophy geniuses from
Duke, someone mentioned the old saw, "The unexamined life is not worth
It dawned on me then that there is no such thing as an unexamined life.
If you doubt me, you have only to ask yourself: What do you think your friends
and relatives talk about when you're not there?
Everybody's life is examined.
The question is whether it's examined by you.
It's time for Dunning to take a good long look at his own thinking and
come to terms with his inner bigot. Because if you took his paragraph and
replaced the word "religion" with"Muslim" or "Catholic" -- or even "Communist"
or "Atheist" -- it would be obvious that this is the language of hate and fear.
It's only because he used the word "religion" that he didn't notice what
he was saying. And that is all the more frightening. Such is the moral climate
among intellectuals in America today that they can divest themselves of such
screeds without any of their friends realizing what's really going on.
But that kind of blanket condemnation is often the first step on the path
that leads perfectly nice people to "persecute and shred, to burn and destroy."
Scooby-Doo 2 is harmless and entertaining in a stupid but likable way.
The story is only slightly smarter than the TV episodes were, but everybody
looks good, there are a few laughs, and by the end, it dawned on me that the
only difference between the Scooby movies and the Batman movies is that the
makers of Scooby-Doo 1 and 2 knew they were making deeply silly movies and
didn't take themselves so seriously.
I mean, what is there in Scooby-Doo 2 that is anywhere near as dumb as
that ridiculous bat suit?
And in this movie Seth Green makes his move to replace Rick Moranis as
the iconic "lovable dweeb" of the decade. He actually makes nerdhood look
cool. Which is a great consolation to me and the rest of the guys in the chess
(That was a joke. They never let me in the chess club.)
I saved the best for last, just to reward the people who actually read the
Charlie Kaufman may be the smartest writer ever to work in Hollywood.
I mean, he's in a profession that never, never, never achieves fame.
Except for Babaloo Mandel, no screenwriter's name is ever remembered by the
general public, unless he also directed the movie.
(And even among those who remember Babaloo Mandel's name, how
many of you knew that he was a guy?)
But Kaufman's zip-2 movie Adaptation was utterly self-referential,
featuring a character named "Charlie Kaufman" who was a tortured
Ever since that movie, people actually remember Charlie Kaufman's
name, and that he's a screenwriter, and that he looks exactly like Nicolas Cage.
Folks, what a career move! Do you know what I'd give to convince people
I looked like a movie star and that my struggles as a writer are actually
interesting to anyone but the editors tearing their hair out waiting for me to
turn in the @#$% manuscript?
The trouble is that Adaptation was such an ego trip that in the end it felt
Not like the brilliant Being John Malkovich, which was the film that first
brought Kaufman to our attention.
If Being John Malkovich came from Kaufman's dazzling mind, and
Adaptation from his needy ego, then I can only conclude that his newest movie,
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, came straight from his heart.
Even though the plot structure is extraordinarily complicated, as the
story is told as a series of flashbacks as memories of a compelling love affair
are erased from the hero's mind, such is Kaufman's genius that we are never,
never confused about what is going on.
OK, well, maybe for a couple of minutes in the first half hour. But trust
me, after that it's all clear, and that's hard to do.
Kaufman's characters are all so well-drawn that first-rank actors were
eager to play quite small roles. While Kate Winslet gets a lot of screen time as
the Holly-Golightly-ish woman that the hero is trying to erase, Kirsten Dunst is
also in what seems at first to be a shockingly small role. Likewise, you have to
wonder what Elijah Wood is doing in such a tiny part -- until it suddenly
explodes in importance about halfway through.
But here's the kicker:
This movie marks the acting debut of Jim Carrey.
The man whose incessant mugging utterly wrecked the might-have-been-good movies Liar, Liar and The Truman Show is actually under control in this
film, giving a sensitive, believable, compassionate performance that marks his
entry into the ranks of performers who can actually play a human being on
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a new entry in a fine old genre:
The sci-fi romantic comedy. Most of the others have used a different method of
time travel (one thinks of Somewhere in Time) but the fundamental issue is still
the same: Can these star-crossed lovers find each other across the reaches of
time and space?
But by the end, it's plain that Kaufman is reaching for something more
than a mere romantic payoff (though the payoff is real enough): Kaufman is
actually a tragedian who uses comedy to distract you along that long dark
road. He can only be compared with Tom Stoppard, I think -- and the list of
writers worthy to be compared with Stoppard is very, very short.
Will everybody like this movie?
Well, let's just say that if Scooby-Doo 2 challenged your ability to follow a
complicated storyline, then Eternal Sunshine is probably too much for you to
handle right now.