Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 20, 2004
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Around the Terminal in 80 Days, St. Dale, Locusts, Queens, and Meat
There are two new movies this week, and they both suffer from the same
disease, though in one case it's nearly fatal, and in the other, it's just irritating.
Around the World in 80 Days was a wonderful book by Jules Verne.
His purpose was to convince his audience that it really was possible, back in
the late 1800s, to travel around the world in 80 days, along the way having
marvelous adventures and cleverly surmounting great obstacles.
The David Niven/Cantinflas movie of nearly fifty years ago brought the
book to delightful life -- changed, but still faithful to the spirit of the original.
Now we have Jackie Chan in the role of Passepartout, who is supposed to
be the amusing sidekick. But since he's the star, and Steve Coogan, as Phileas
Fogg, is virtually unknown, the part of Passepartout has been inflated to the
point of nearly exploding the story. For much of the film, it's barely about
Phileas Fogg and his round-the-world bet at all.
But that would have been endurable if the writers of this film had not
been so contemptuous of believability. And believability matters. If the events
are not possible, if we don't believe they might really happen, then the story
has no point at all. When any absurd or stupid thing can happen, then who
cares what does happen?
The repeated joke is that Phileas Fogg invented everything. However,
they can't make up their mind which time period this film takes place in.
Victoria is queen (Kathy Bates, in the one good cameo in the film), and the
Wright brothers have not yet built their airplane, though for some reason
they're wandering around in the cactus-filled desert between Reno and San
Francisco (which, in case you didn't know, doesn't exist -- it's high mountains
and lakes or California's Central Valley between those two cities). But electric
lights are still a shocking novelty, and yet streamlining is already incorporated
in the inventor's designs, and ... then they build a flying machine out of the
kind of wood that you'd find on a ship. Ludicrous.
But far worse than the silly technological mistakes is the writers'
penchant for elaborately set-up sight gags. Let's see -- how many wretched
movies have depended for all their humor on jokes that are engineered like
Rube Goldberg contraptions? The Money Pit, the Home Alone movies, that
hideous one about trying to kill a mouse that I walked out of a few years ago;
when is somebody going to catch on that those gags just aren't funny enough
to justify the destruction of the believability of the film?
This movie was written by three Davids: David Titcher (a former writer
with who's the Boss, whose last feature film was Morgan Stewart's Coming
Home, a Jon Cryer vehicle in the 1980s), David Benullo (who wrote Cupid, a
dark little incest story that was no doubt a riot), David Goldstein (who,
mercifully, has no other film to be blamed for). Watch these guys -- if they ever
combine forces again, stay away.
The director was Frank Coraci, whose previous films include The
Waterboy and The Wedding Singer. Since Coraci has shown he can do comedy
that arises out of character and situation, one can only conclude that this
movie was a cynical exercise by all concerned. No one's heart went into this
film, and without that, comedy is always doomed to fail.
The other movie that destroys believability is Stephen Spielberg's The
Terminal. The deep dishonesty of this movie is merely irritating because Tom
Hanks, Stanley Tucci, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, along with many less-well-known actors, give such honest performances.
This film is based on a real incident that occurred in France, the country
that invented mindless bureaucracy. A man's native country suffers a
revolution while he's on an international flight, and when he arrives, his
passport and visa are no longer valid. Therefore he can't enter the country; but
he also can't go home. So he lives in the airport.
The fact is it couldn't happen in New York -- at least not as shown.
That's not the problem, though -- we'll buy the premise readily enough, if the
rest of the story is good.
The trouble is, Stephen Spielberg doesn't know how to tell an honest,
straightforward story. He always has to cheat -- to get cheap laughs and to get
cheap sentiment. He really does believe his audience is infinitely stupid, and
heaven knows his movie grosses suggest that perhaps we are. Or maybe we're
beginning to catch on.
Anything for a gag:
Tom Hanks's character has been living in the airport long enough to
learn English -- but he still runs into the women's restroom. He walks into a
plate glass window. He mispronounces "cheat" so it sounds like a bad word,
even though the Slavic language he speaks makes a clear distinction between
sh and ch. This is all stupid, cheap humor; the only thing that saves it is that
Hanks's performance is so perfectly tuned that he saves Spielberg the
humiliation he deserves for even asking an actor to do these things.
Worse, though, is the rank manipulation of character. Stanley Tucci's
character is rule-obsessed. Except when Spielberg wants him to be vindictive
and hateful. Which is dropped the moment Spielberg wants to make him
suddenly understanding. All without motivation. Tucci tries, but ... he's given
nothing but stick-figure writing to work with.
As for Catherine Zeta-Jones, this is one of her best performances, giving
us a character with some nuance. But then, near the end of the film, she goes
through a complete reversal of everything we thought she had learned through
her association with Hanks. Supposedly it's both a noble sacrifice and a
return-to-type, but it can't be both, and Spielberg thinks it can.
These characters -- and the minor characters, as well -- amount to
nothing. By the end, it's obvious Spielberg has no idea what real human
beings are like, and throws away his actors' work in order to get cheap effects.
When the charming mop-wielding Indian makes a spectacularly noble but
utterly stupid and pointless sacrifice near the end, we know we're being led
around by an idiot -- and I don't mean the actor.
As a final manipulation, Hanks's character is finally on the verge of
getting the thing he came to America for, but for no reason at all, the person
who could give it to him in three seconds makes him sit and wait. Then we cut
to Hanks leaving, and we are meant to think he didn't get it. But then we
realize, he did! Only by then we don't care, because we know we're just being
arbitrarily jerked around.
Spielberg has such contempt for his audience that isn't it about time we
returned the favor?
Because of the caliber of Spielberg's cast, The Terminal is a more
watchable movie; but for exactly the same reason, it's more of a dismal shame
that it's not a better movie. It was so close; it could have been so good; and
Spielberg himself is the complete reason why it wasn't.
At least the makers of Around the World in 80 Days have the excuse that
they were hired by Disney to make a piece of junk, an expectation which they
almost completely fulfilled. But The Terminal pretends to be something fine,
which makes its failure all the worse.
One of the perks of my job as a novelist is that now and then I'm given a
chance to look at someone else's book in advance of publication, in order to
make some comment that might appear on the cover of the book to help
That's why I've had a chance to read Sharyn McCrumb's next book, St.
Dale, which will appear on February 18th of 2005. And if you don't know why
that date is significant, then you really need this book.
Though McCrumb is famous for two mystery series, one set in
Appalachia with the tone of a beautiful dream, the other delightfully comic.
St. Dale, however, is a completely different kind of project. McCrumb has
set herself the bold task of following in Chaucer's footsteps, only instead of
heading for the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, these pilgrims are
on a tour bus, determined to lay wreaths in memory of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., on
all the major NASCAR tracks, ending at Daytona.
McCrumb's idea is that we now choose secular saints, but with many of
the same impulses that led our forebears to choose saints in centuries past.
Why Elvis, and not John Lennon? Why Dale Earnhardt, and not any of the
other NASCAR drivers who have died?
By the end of this book, some of the characters, at least, have an answer
to such questions.
This book is funny. Just like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the humor
can be heartwarming or ribald, acid or slapstick.
But McCrumb is also a powerful novelist, and she doesn't just settle for
laughs. She has assembled a marvelous collection of characters -- a NASCAR-hating woman judge who has been dragged along by her Earnhardt-smitten
sister; an old man bringing his senile wife as a kind of farewell gesture; a young
couple who get married before the first race and use the rest of the tour as
their honeymoon; a priest who is accompanying a dying boy whose last wish
was this tour; and the tour guide, a one-time NASCAR driver who is desperate
to get back in the game.
All these characters get a chance to tell their stories. And all their stories
are marvelous. Yet everything comes together as a single novel that is full of
magic and laughter, wonder and love. McCrumb may have begun this project
as a lark, but she finished it as the greatest work of her career so far -- a novel
that captures the heart of that part of America that is dismissed, by the
ignorant, as "redneck."
I've already read it, and you have to wait eight months. Eat your hearts
In recent years, popular historians have produced a spate of books that
take a narrow theme that allows for an interesting, quirky new view of familiar
Sometimes, as with Seabiscuit or The Perfect Storm, the result is a
coherent set of stories that amount to something. They can capture the public
imagination and become deserved bestsellers.
The first of these might have been Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror, a
book that examined the turmoil of the 14th century, in which the Plague
decimated Europe and transformed society in ways that led quite directly to
our modern world.
But not all such attempts are successful. Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the
Chess Queen: A History seemed promising. When chess originated, the piece
that stood beside the King was the Vizier or the General, and it was weak --
like the King, it could only move one square, but unlike the King, could do it
only on the diagonal.
Somehow, and for some reason, in Europe the piece became female, and
then became almost absurdly powerful.
The history of the chess pieces as they made their way from India to
Persia, then to the Muslim world and on to Europe, is fascinating enough. But
it soon becomes clear that there's only enough real material here for a fifty-page essay.
What fills the rest of the pages? For a while, it's Yalom's speculation
about which medieval queens might have caused Europeans to see the second
most important chess piece as a female consort rather than an appointed
second-in-command. (The practice of turning over-achieving pawns into
queens began when the pawns were actually turning into viziers or generals --
something that is possible in the real world.)
But soon it degenerates into a long diatribe on why showing the one
female as the most dangerous on the chessboard says something about the
view of women in our society. Come on, this stuff was old by the end of the
seventies. Are there historians who still think that force-fitting history to the
ideological fads of the present says something useful about either then or now?
Jeffrey A. Lockwood's Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious
Disappearance of the Insect That Shaped the American Frontier is a
much better book, not least because Lockwood himself is a practicing scientist,
who has made significant discovers about the reasons why locusts once raged
in vast swarms across the American midwest, but now are seemingly gone.
The reason for the great plagues of locusts that came more than once
every decade is partly human-caused: Wheat was the perfect crop for the
locusts, and one of the reasons they were able to thrive in such vast numbers
was that farmers had replaced the more recoverable prairie lands with millionsof acres of wheat from horizon to horizon.
Another reason was that settlers had slaughtered tens of thousands of
the birds that once fed on millions of locusts.
The reason for the locusts' disappearance was also human intervention.
Lockwood puts it briefly as a matter of "plows and cows." Locust eggs and
nympths can be drowned when their hatching grounds are too wet. When
slopes are grazed by cattle, the soil holds less water; so it runs off into the
valleys where the locusts then drown.
Meanwhile, what locusts don't drown are killed by the plow and the
harrow. Plows bury the eggs deeper, so most of the young can't reach the
surface when they hatch. While the harrow turns the eggs up to the surface,
where they are a favorite delicacy of birds.
Most ironically, though, is the role of Yellowstone National Park in the
creation of these locust plagues. For during the years when the locusts did not
come out to destroy much of American agriculture, they survived in high
mountain valleys, where conditions were right for them to breed and
reproduce. And when farming was forbidden in the high valleys of Yellowstone,
it preserved the breeding grounds of the locust plagues for generations, though
no one realized at the time that this was where they were coming from.
Lockwood, however, soon reveals an almost pathological sympathy for
the locusts. He shares the common environmentalist attitude that human
beings cause havoc wherever they go, and therefore shouldn't go anywhere;
when the more honest view is simply that humans are yet one more
cataclysmic pressure in the ongoing history of evolution. The arrival of
humans changes things -- just like volcanos or a meteor impact or the orbital
cycles that cause ice ages and thaws.
The difference is that humans often suffer the consequences of their own
actions, and can decide which of them to try to ameliorate. It's pointless and
unscientific to consider humans to be the one group of living things that must
be forbidden to fulfil their genetic heritage and act on their natural impulses
because they're somehow "bad."
Instead, we might celebrate the ability of humans, unique among all the
natural forces, to recognize the unintended consequences of our actions and
change them or compensate for them.
Despite Lockwood's rather anti-human rhetoric, however, the book, like
his scientific work, is valuable. You just have to filter out the moral judgments
-- the religion, in other words -- and stick to the fascinating and illuminating
Leblon is open now as a churrascaria, and the verdict is in. We took
some friends to dinner on both Wednesday and Thursday nights of last week,
and the conclusion we heard from everyone is that the whole experience is
Even without the flamboyance of the rodizio-style service -- meat sliced
from spits, which you grab with tongs and place on your plate -- this would be
the best meat in town. The intensely flavorful picanha (garlic sirloin) and
bacon-wrapped turkey are matched by great sausage, chicken, lamb, pork, and
various other cuts of beef, not to mention salmon with an amazing passion-fruit sauce (or, for traditionalists, a good tartar sauce).
One of our friends realized something that had never occurred to me:
"This is a great place for me to have a dinner meeting, because you start eating
right away -- we'll get a lot more business done if there isn't an hour of
drinking on an empty stomach first!"
I can't comment on the wine selection, but those who know tell me that
it's excellent. For me, there's only one drink at Leblon: guaraná, a soft drink
that looks like a rich cream soda or apple beer, but tastes like nothing else.
The salad bar is great -- along with traditional greens and vegetables,
there are artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, the Leblon specialty avocado
dressing, and lots of delicious ready-made salads.
There are two sets of waiters. The churrasco team -- the ones who carry
around the spits of meat and the sharp, sharp knives -- consists of native
Brazilians with years of experience. The other waiters, who bring drinks and
silverware and swap clean plates for used ones, are local. All of them are
attentive and quick.
And when they trade your salad plate for the meat plate, take a moment
and go get some rice, cover it with black bean stew, and add a dollop of farofa.
A Brazilian meal wouldn't be Brazilian without them!
Keep in mind, however, that the goal here is not to get the most food for
the least money. You aren't getting the cheapest cuts of meat to keep the price
down -- you're getting some of the best food in North Carolina, in enormous
quantities. But at less than thirty dollars a person -- less if you choose to have
salad only, more if you choose an expensive wine -- it's still an amazing
bargain for food this fine.