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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 19, 2004

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


Neverland, Snicket, Sideways, and Christmas cards and letters

Last year's finest movie was, in my opinion, Peter Pan. And tonight, after it finally reached Greensboro, I find that a very different kind of movie, but one very closely linked, is the best movie of 2004: Finding Neverland.

In fact, this is as close to perfect as a movie can be -- in its writing, its direction, its casting, its acting, and its design.

Unfortunately, because it aspires to beauty and achieves it, it is dismissed by the kind of adolescent-minded critic who thinks that only movies that celebrate ugliness are worthy of serious attention.

Since we live in an era when beauty has been abandoned by most of the arts, however, I think that it is the very search for truth and beauty that makes a film or novel truly avant garde and cutting edge; whereas the films that explore ugliness are far more likely to be the repetitive, cliche-ridden, formulaic, empty-souled, artistically undemanding potboilers of our time.

It is hard even for a brilliant artist to create something beautiful and moving, whereas to create something ugly but famous, one must merely be unskilled at art but relentless at self-promotion.

Finding Neverland is a kind of bio-pic -- but one with a very tight focus. The only apt comparison is with 1993's Shadowlands, which was based on C.S. Lewis's memoir Surprised by Joy, and so did not try to tell Lewis's whole life, but rather the story he told: of his relationship with the woman he married, the love of his life.

Similarly, Finding Neverland does not even begin to tell the life of J.M. Barrie, a Scot who became a noted London playwright even before his Peter Pan launched him into that pantheon of writers who have created a character and a story that leaps out of art and into the public memory.

No one expected Barrie to produce something like Peter Pan. He was an intellectual, a satirist, a public wit who moved in circles that included Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, and Robert Louis Stevenson; though when you think about it, all of these but Hardy are today remembered best for writings that are now regarded as children's or young-adult literature.

Finding Neverland is centered around James Barrie's relationship with the widow Sylvia Llewelyn Davis and her five boys (only four of whom appear in the movie). While the story is partly shaped by the public's assumption of a love affair between Sylvia and James, in fact the relationship is between Barrie and the Llewelyn Davis boys.

And because we live in evil times, suspicions must be dealt with. By any standard of evidence, there was nothing at all improper or indecent in his relationship with these boys (or any other children).

Barrie was a man whose own childhood was shaped by the death of his older brother, and these boys were fatherless. The charges made that his attention to them arose from some sexual inadequacy or perversion is entirely in the scandal-hungry eye of contemporary speculators.

Even those who are forced to admit that he did nothing wrong charge him with being "asexual," which is, in our day, regarded as one of the more embarrassing "perversions." And if this movie had been about Barrie's sex life, you can be sure it would have been praised by the very same critics who are immune to its much loftier achievements.

It is as if these people forget that it is possible to feel great love that has no sexual desire attached to it; that one can show compassion that is untinged by any desire but the wish that someone else, who is unhappy, might be made happier.

From Barrie's compassion for these boys two things emerged:

1. Barrie provided a warm and decent influence in their lives, and;

2. Barrie created, from their kinship, Peter Pan.

Normally I loathe stories about writers, especially the ones that purport to show the source of some great work of literature. Partly that's because the work of literature in question is usually not all that great; partly because the "influence" is usually facile and shallow.

But in this case, the influence was obvious, and the work was created as something of a gift mutually given. The fact that Barrie willed the copyright to Peter Pan to London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for orphans suggests that he recognized for whom and from whom the play was created.

(The copyright is about to run out, and it is rumored that the hospital is looking for an author to write a sequel to keep the Peter Pan income flowing; I assume, however, that some kind of arrangement was made between the hospital and Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the authors of the delightful, if badly copy-edited, prequel to Peter Pan, Peter and the Starcatchers, which was my favorite book published this year; if that is the book that they hope will keep Peter Pan alive for them, then I think they've done well.)

What Finding Neverland achieves is to show us love and joy, not just in the real world of Barrie and the Llewelyn Davis family, but also in the lives of audience members who come into a theatre prepared to be amused, only to find themselves transformed.

What happened to the children (and adults) who watched Peter Pan in those pre-talkie, pre-television days is what happens to open-minded, open-hearted audience members who see Finding Neverland: They are touched by truth and beauty, even when it is wrapped in the guise of fantasy and tragedy.

Johnny Depp achieves perfection in his low-key portrayal of Barrie. When I imagine Robin Williams or Jim Carrey trying to play such a role I cringe -- this is why Depp is a great actor and neither Williams nor Carrey even begins to approach greatness. Depp, you see, knows when to shut up and hold still, when to conceal his own artistry and thereby reveal the story.

Julie Christie, Kate Winslet, and Dustin Hoffman are superb in their roles, but it is the boys who own this movie, especially Freddie Highmore in a deep and exquisite portrayal of Peter Llewelyn Davis. He will break your heart without ever seeming to try to do so; indeed, his whole performance is shaped as the antithesis of the meaning of the film, which is why it works so very well.

Finding Neverland is a story that can appeal to mature children -- our ten-year-old enjoyed it greatly -- though much of it will only be understood by adults. Small children will probably not be able to follow it.

*

Two other recent movies are valiant efforts, worthy of some admiration, though it is hard to compete with perfection.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events combines three of the Lemony Snicket books into a single film that, unlike the books, actually has something of an ending.

This movie is so gorgeously and creatively designed that for sets and costumes alone it is worth seeing. And there are several laughs and several thrills that almost make you think you're going to enjoy the movie.

Unfortunately, this film is cursed the way the live-action Grinch movie and The Truman Show were cursed: Jim Carrey.

Carrey showed in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that he can actually give a natural performance. But, as with the previously mentioned acting disasters, he apparently thought that Lemony Snicket depended, for its success, on Carrey giving as broad and unbelievable a performance as possible.

Watching Carrey try desperately to be funny is only sad, unfortunately, as his shtick gets more and more familiar. One begins to think: Oh, he's doing that again, with ever-increasing disappointment.

The only way a Lemony Snicket movie could possibly work is if the villain, Count Olaf, were credible. You have to be able to believe that he might fool other characters into thinking that he might be a worthy guardian for the orphaned Baudelaire children.

But Carrey's performance is so broad and obvious that you wouldn't entrust him with the guardianship of a snail. So the very real performances by Emily Browning and Liam Aikin as the two older Baudelaire children are quite wasted as long as Carrey is on the screen. Only when the children are by themselves or with the one good adult actor in the movie, Billy Connolly, do you actually care what happens to them.

Fortunately, they're alone (or with Connolly) just often enough that the movie is quite watchable.

Someday, maybe Jim Carrey will recognize that "being funny" is not always the way to make audiences laugh. Sometimes, you have to be real, but with perfect timing. Certainly his performance in Snicket is so strained, so needy, so sad that you're embarrassed for him. Like watching a bad standup comic "die" onstage. You want to say, "Look, it's OK, just walk off the stage and go home, you don't have to stay there and keep embarrassing us all."

Unfortunately, Carrey has made enough money with his clownish movies that he will never walk off the stage; and he will never learn how to be funny in a part that requires even a shred of realistic acting.

And even if Carrey's part had been taken by a truly gifted comic actor (Hugh Grant would have been absolutely brilliant in this role -- far more dangerous to the children because his lies would be believable), I'm not sure the movie would have worked. Not because Laurie MacDonald's screenplay is bad -- it would be hard to imagine a better one that stayed faithful to the books.

Rather, the movie us ultimately empty because the books are empty. They are a long, long joke based on an arch tone in the writing; they are mocking formula, but they don't transcend the thing they mock. My family stopped reading them aloud and then stopped reading them at all because, ultimately, who cares what happens?

Still, as long as you've already seen the good movies that are playing right now, Snicket is worth an evening's entertainment budget for the sets, costumes, and effects, the handful of good performances, and the running gag of subtitled comments from the nonverbal Baudelaire baby, Sunny.

*

The other marginal movie is Sideways. The story of two friends, failing novelist Miles and fading actor Jack, who go on a California wine-tasting trip in the last week before Jack's wedding, Sideways is precisely the kind of bleak, people-are-sometimes-almost-noble-in-spite-of-their-repulsive-emptiness independent movie that critics love to praise.

The thing that nobody's supposed to mention is that at heart, Sideways is a sentimental little romantic comedy; all the other stuff is just to make it unpleasant enough that so-FISS-tickated critics can praise it without embarrassing themselves.

We have our sadly obvious symbols (ooooh, did you see how the wrong way signs got worked into that shot?), we have our ugly frontal nudity from an angry fat guy to show we're "cutting edge," and we have our long conversations that seem to be about one thing when they're really about another.

So the recipe has been followed for a really stupid critical hit.

Except that somewhere along the way, somebody cast some good actors and somebody else -- could it be the writer? -- actually inserted a little reality.

For one thing, the writer character (Miles) is honestly written and honestly acted by Paul Giamatti, while Thomas Haden Church, as actor Jack, strikes just the right balance between being believably sexy and believably pathetic. Sandra Oh, as Jack's "fling," is real enough that you actually care what happens to her and her child; and Virginia Madsen, a vastly underrated actress, is radiant and real.

Sideways is just repulsive enough to remind me of why I have so much contempt for most of today's critical-hit movies; but just good enough to remind me why I keep going to them. Any of the four lead actors is worthy of award consideration (as is Marylouise Burke in a movie-stealing turn as Miles's mother), and the movie was unflaggingly interesting.

I even found myself interested in the conversations about wine, as tedious a subject as I can imagine this side of the properties of gravel -- so the movie must have been well written.

*

What happened to Hallmark this year? And last, for that matter. A few years ago, they had some wonderfully creative Christmas cards -- some stunning with laser cut designs, others clever, many more that were simply lovely.

But this year? We looked along the racks and wondered if someone at Hallmark had said, "Hey, we don't have to create anything here, the name Hallmark will sell cards no matter whether we spend money on design or not."

The result was that our cards were bought either at bookstores or from the MOMA and Metropolitan Museum of Art catalogues.

To the Hallmark people: Your slogan "when you care enough to send the very best" only works for you when your cards are the very best.

*

Best train for around the Christmas tree this year came from Hammacher-Schlemmer, of all places, with their "Animated Holiday Express Train." Each car is cleverly designed and the animation is mechanical, so even if the electronics aren't connected, the cars are fun to watch as they pass by.

*

I hear people complain about the family letters that are included with many Christmas cards, and some of the criticisms are quite nasty. They're called "brag sheets" and people are mocked for how they tout their children's accomplishments.

I don't understand any of the criticisms. Sure, some of the letters are badly designed -- long narrow lines with too-small type -- and therefore hard to read. But did you choose your friends because they were skilled at page layout and type design?

These letters are written in order to be read by friends. You remember what friends are, don't you? People who wish you well. So when they read of your children's achievements, they won't be resentful or mocking, they'll be saying things like, "How cool that little Johnny grew up to go into that profession," or, "Can you believe that it's been so many years since we last say the Ardmores that the baby is getting married now?"

In other words, you were sent that family letter because they thought you cared about them and their family -- maybe enough that you wouldn't be sitting in judgment on them.

Christmas cards -- and the family letters that go with them -- are a good way to keep in touch with people who really meant something to you at some point in your life, and whom you still care about despite the intervening years and miles.

Sure, if you have some creativity, go all-out and find something interesting and entertaining to do with your family letter.

But we'll read it even if it's badly spelled and in tiny type. We're sending you our Christmas card and letter because we care about you and want you to keep in touch with us, and we assume you're sending yours for the same reason.

And if you don't care about the people whose Christmas letters you're mocking, then for pete's sake, stop sending them cards! After a couple of years of not hearing from you, they'll take the hint and stop burdening you with their annual greetings.

And if they don't take the hint, then instead of heartlessly mocking them, send them a letter that says: "Please forgive us, but we can't remember who you are and have no idea how we got on your Christmas card list. If you stop wasting postage on us, we can stop trying to figure out when and where we ever met you."

Of course, then you run the risk of realizing, only too late, that these were the people who found and returned your baby when you left her at that WalMart in Arkansas on a family trip in 1985 ...

*

Barnes & Noble has an active program of putting out cheap editions of older hardcover books or at least rescuing remaindered books. Like one of our favorite bathroom readers: Charles Panati's The Browser's Book of Endings: The End of Practically Everything and Everybody.

But not all those cheap hardcovers are as interesting or useful as they might seem. This Christmas I picked up two copies of Martin Seymour-Smith's The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today, one to give as a gift, the other to read myself.

I won't be giving the gift, because the book is not what it claims to be. Instead, a better title might be The Bigot's Guide to Why I'm Smarter than Ordinary People, Including All Religious People and Especially Christians.

Seymour-Smith's chapter on the Old Testament is pathetic in what it confesses about the author's own fears and prejudices, and his remarks on other books shows that he has swallowed way too much faddish secondary literature and has little independent thinking to show for having read the books he claims are so very influential.

*

America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge is a fascinating story of pro football in the modern era. It's not his fault that I wished I were reading a different book -- one that included the whole history of football, pro and amateur.

The problem, you see, is that far more is known about the last fifty years of the business side of pro football than is interesting, and all of it is in America's Game.

Still, the first quarter of the book is very good, and the rest is skimmable.

Of course, if you come to this book knowing nothing about the past fifty years of pro football, chances are you'll be completely at sea. Because MacCambridge takes for granted that you already know who a lot of these people are and what they're famous for.

And if you don't -- or if you don't know anything about how the game is played -- you won't find it out from reading this book.

The great book about the history of American football is yet to be written; but whoever writes it will have to have read MacCambridge's book first.


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