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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 21, 2004

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


SpongeBob, Treasure, Fathers, Metro Girl, and a Hymn

When I got married, I was determined to do everything I could to make my wife happy. One step in that direction was a promise I made to myself: There was never going to be a job so horrible or disgusting or demeaning that I couldn't do it, but my wife could.

Several thousand dead spiders, changed diapers, cleaned bathrooms, and de-pooped lawns later, last week I finally came face to face with my human limitations: a task so vile that I could not do it, and yet my wife could.

I speak of taking our ten-year-old and some friends to see The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.

I'm the guy who took her to see the Jimmy Neutron movie a few years ago. It's not that I have no courage at all.

I've tried to watch the SpongeBob TV show. When I walk into a room and those nasty, grating voices make me want to start breaking things like an out-of-control gorilla, I force myself sometimes to stand and watch, trying to see why this intelligent, good-natured ten-year-old who shares half my genetic material is laughing in delight at the antics of creatures that make me want to find the writers and slap them till they look like SpongeBob.

So I cannot review this movie as an unbiased spectator. What pinheaded fundamentalists accuse the wonderful Harry Potter franchise of being, I suspect that SpongeBob actually is: part of an evil plot to destroy all that is good in civilization by corrupting our children.

After watching SpongeBob for hours and hours, how can any child ever hope to acquire an appreciation of beauty and wisdom, of real humor and human virtue? None of those things will be loud enough to get past the incessant subliminal screeching that will remain in their minds from SpongeBob.

Having confessed my bias, let me pass along the reviews of family members who attended the $33.5-million opening weekend:

From the ten-year-old: "It was great!" Proof of sincerity: She and her friends laughed themselves silly from beginning to end. During the end credits, they stood up and danced.

From the heroic, noble wife who saved her poor husband from the dragon: "It wasn't as bad as I expected. I only slept for about ten minutes one time, and I only wanted to kill myself five or six times before it finally ended."

*

The reviews of National Treasure have been lukewarm. I think that has a lot to do with expectations. The movie was promoted as being in the Raiders of the Lost Ark tradition -- which it is. But movie reviewers have a built-in expectation that each new movie in a genre must try to "push the envelope" -- that is, to take whatever the genre is best-known for, and do it bigger, better, stronger, more.

The result is that they often miss it when filmmakers try to take a genre and do something unexpected with it. Something that crosses genre boundaries.

So yes, National Treasure is not "bigger, better, more" than Raiders or its clones. There are "missed opportunities." For instance, when they escape from the old iced-in ship, I fully expected that we'd get a new danger: The ice around it would melt and they'd have to swim/paddle/leap for their lives. Such a thing had been set up in the dialogue.

But it didn't happen. It's as if the filmmakers were impatient with the need for ever-bigger effects and ever-sillier dangers. As if they were saying to the audience, "OK, there could have been more danger here, but we want to get on with the story so we'll skip those obvious but empty moves."

In other words, they didn't make the mistakes Spielberg himself made in the second Indiana Jones movie, when he grossed us out with an ugly and unnecessary removing-of-the-heart-from-a-living-person scene.

Because it's in the nature of "edginess" that the line keeps receding. If you are constantly trying to cross that line, eventually it leads you to destroy the story in pursuit of some empty extreme. Like the repulsive gross-outs being promoted for the next episode of Crossing Jordan. They think they're pushing the envelope, but what they're really doing is selecting for an audience drawn to the pornography of violent evil.

What makes any storytelling medium a civilizing force is that the story -- the motives, the moral reasoning, the causal universe -- must always come first, while the spectacle is merely the sauce.

National Treasure is a film that has its head on straight. It is wonderful adventure, full of excitement; it absolutely works as a contest between the subtle-thinking smart guys (the characters played by our favorite eccentric, Nicolas Cage, sharp and wry Diane Kruger [Helen from Troy], and sweetly eager Justin Bartha, who will be a huge star very soon) and the bombs-and-bludgeons crew led by one of our best screen villains, Sean Bean (Boromir from Lord of the Rings).

But it also works as a delicious parody of stories about centuries-old conspiracies and secret codes.

And on an even deeper level, it's a story about faith, loyalty, sacrifice ... stuff that we're always embarrassed to talk about, but which we admire deeply when we encounter it in other people, whether in real life or in fiction.

National Treasure is not only smart, but it thinks we're smart. It is made with the assumption that we can follow a storyline that actually requires us to think and remember and care about what's good and decent.

Even though the premise of the movie is absurd on its face, the movie embraces its absurdity and uses it. Diane Kruger's character stands in our place, absolutely an unbeliever until a combination of Nicolas Cage's irresistible faith and the growing physical evidence make a believer out of her.

Perhaps the greatest delight in this movie is the fact that Nicolas Cage's character simply doesn't lie. Even when it hurts his cause, even when he really doesn't want to, he tells the truth.

I think this movie is not just good, but better than Raiders, though not everyone will feel that way. I wanted Raiders to be a much smarter movie than it was, and National Treasure is exactly what I wished for.

Besides, any film that can take Jon Voight and Harvey Keitel and make them lovable is pushing a different kind of envelope.

I have only one quibble: While the Knights Templar are no longer around to resent their treatment in film, the Masons are. Considering the long history in America of anti-Masonic hatred, of wacko beliefs about the "conspiracies" behind Masonry, this movie has to rankle just a little. Though only a little -- after all, the Masonic brotherhood comes off very well in the end.

Still, Masonry is a real movement with a real history, and that history is mincemeat by the end of National Treasure. So do take that part of the story with a grain of salt.

*

On the one hand, Polar Express has not been making money the way the studio thought it would.

On the other hand, its second week has slipped less than expected -- which is usually taken in Hollywood as a sign that a film has legs, that it will make more money than the opening suggested.

I think that part of the reason why some people don't like it as much as my family did is that the animation is so close to being lifelike.

If you come to the theater thinking of it as an animated film, then it is incredibly lifelike.

But the look of it is so close to reality that it is easy to think of it as a live-action movie with a disturbing deadness about the eyes. Seen that way, it can be quite offputting.

The problem, you see, is that our brains are designed to key in with remarkable precision on the eyes of other people. Every tiny twitch of the brows, lids, and skin around the eyes is registered as part of the character, as part of the life of the person.

And that is precisely the thing that the capture method they used in making Polar Express could not reproduce. That is why some people complain of dead eyes -- even though Polar Express actually has far more facial expression than The Incredibles or any other animated movie before it.

I can only suggest that when you watch Polar Express, you not allow yourself to expect it to be utterly real, but keep in mind that it is animated. Because within those limitations, it is an extraordinarily good Christmas movie that moved us and delighted us.

*

I'm so, so, so tired of seeing men -- and especially fathers -- ridiculed on screen. Take that seemingly sweet commercial from some steakhouse or other, where the father sneaks into a kid's room to lay a quarter on the pillow. (Never mind what questions that will raise in the minds of little kids; that's another issue.)

We get a slapstick sequence of events. In his sleep, the kid rolls over and smacks his father in the head. The father recoils, steps on a prickly dinosaur toy, and then smashes his head into a door. Ha ha ha.

Then the announcer says, in effect, "Dad may be a bumbling oaf, but he tries hard, and he deserves a good dinner out."

How can that be anti-father?

The answer is obvious if you perform a little thought experiment. What if that had been a mother? Is there even the tiniest chance that any ad agency would put out an advertisement showing a mother as a bumbling doofus who gets smacked, stubbed, and conked on the head before we're told "Mom deserves a good dinner"?

No, no, and no. Mother would be shown working hard at a demanding job, then slaving away at household chores while finding time to help her kids with their homework. Then, when she had been cast as a noble hero, we would be told that she deserves a dinner out.

Fathers: Silly bumbling goofs.

Mothers: Heroic omnicompetent sacrificers.

In the real world, there are plenty of stupid clumsy silly moms -- but you'd have to be a complete idiot to try to sell products to those women by depicting them that way.

In the real world, there are also plenty of hard-working, self-sacrificing, kind and loving fathers. In fact, most of the men I know fall into that category.

But apparently nobody thinks that they can sell a product or create a storyline by putting any such fathers on the screen.

As a friend of mine recently said to me in an email: "Ward Cleaver showed us all how to be a good dad. Nowadays only the people who actually have a good dad will ever get a chance to see one."

*

Janet Evanovich is best-known for her Stephanie Plum mystery series. I'm happy to see that her most recent novel, Metro Girl, is climbing the bestseller lists even though Stephanie Plum is nowhere near it.

Evanovich's breezy, lustful humor is still prominent in this story of a woman who goes to Florida to get her wild brother out of a jam and ends up losing her job, getting shot at, having to do exactly the things she fears most, and falling in love with a NASCAR driver.

If the characterization is shallow, who cares? We have fun all the way, and since this book is obviously designed to be a movie -- and a darn good one, unless Hollywood turns it over to idiots -- we can wait for nuances of character until we can read them in the actors' faces.

You won't have more fun reading a book this month. And since it's not part of a series, you won't feel lost -- it's all new to everybody.

*

In this holiday season, there's no shortage of Christmas music. Which is why my holiday present to the readers of the Rhino Times is not a Christmas song. Instead, it's a year-round hymn that carries, I hope, the deeper meaning of what this season celebrates.

Composer Mark Mitchell has created a gentle, beautiful, and musically interesting setting for the words I wrote, and has kindly joined me in offering "Let No Hands Be Idle Here" as a free offering, which you can photocopy as needed, without royalties, for use in unpaid performances. (For paid performers seeking the right to perform the song, contact me at http://www.hatrack.com.)

The sheet music will be reproduced in the Rhino wherever they find the space to put it. Here are the words of the hymn, including an additional middle stanza:

Let no hands be idle here.
Let no heart be filled with fear.
Let no child uncared-for be.
Where the need is, O let me!

Leave no broken heart alone.
Leave no lonely soul unknown.
Lead all wanderers to Thee.
Where the need is, O let me!

Set the world's desires aside.
Set all sail against the tide.
Set the weeping captive free.
Where the need is, O let me!

Give the beggar what he asks.
Give the willing worker tasks.
Give to all unstintingly.
Where the need is, O let me!

Like a river life can seem:
Dip a cup into the stream,
Drink, and share it openly:
Love of God, so sweet to me!

Words and music copyright © 2004 by Mark Mitchell and Orson Scott Card


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