Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 15, 2005
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Crusaders, Ray Bradbury, Mozilla, and Laptop Lane
Kingdom of Heaven looked horrifyingly bad to me from the promos. Oh, the
visuals were wonderful -- and I don't just mean the closeups of Orlando Bloom
and Eva Green. When Ridley Scott is directing, you can be sure that a movie
will be well-filmed, well-acted, and well-edited.
What I dreaded was political correctness. And some of the quotes I heard --
especially one played during a radio interview with Scott while I was in LA last
week -- seemed so grossly anachronistic as to be laughable.
It seemed to me that this was going to be a film about the Crusades in which
none of the sympathetic characters were actually believing Christians, and in
which the climactic moment would come as the hero rejected all organized
religion and gave a ringing plea for sensitive liberalism.
Sensitive liberalism was not a common trait in the 12th century, and I was
prepared to cringe.
To my surprise, William Monahan's script was not quite so nakedly p.c. as the
out-of-context clips made it seem. The reasons for the hero's questioning of the
organized Church were well-founded in the kind of thing that happened in that
era; and as Boccaccio's Decameron so thoroughly showed, it was quite possible
to be Christian while having a very low opinion of priests and popes.
So by the time we got to the climax of the movie, Orlando Bloom's stirring
speech, which had seemed so ludicrously out of place as a clip, was exactly
what was called for as the character, Balian, rallied the Muslims, Christians,
and Jews of Jerusalem to save their city from being ravaged by Saladin's
In fact, Kingdom of Heaven joins Troy in a revival of the serious historical epic.
(I don't count the whimsically ahistorical Gladiator.) Instead of being
dominated by the special effects department, this film keeps the effects in their
place and focuses on the human beings. Monahan's scenes play beautifully,
and Orlando Bloom is able to do what Kevin Costner so miserably failed at in
Robin Hood: play the common man who becomes a believable hero.
Complementing Bloom's fine performance is Eva Green's fascinatingly quirky
portrayal of Sybilla, the royal sister of Baldwin, the Leper King of Jerusalem.
My only regret is that apparently Monahan and Scott thought that having a sex
scene was obligatory. It's handled tastefully enough -- the film's R comes from
violence -- but then the rest of the story has Balian insisting on maintaining
his knightly purity, after it seems to us as though he left it in Sybilla's bed long
before. The scene could have been skipped and it would have been a better
But that does not detract from Green's moving portrayal of a woman who
knows she is a pawn of the needs of the crown -- but loves her brother and
Balian all the same. Ed Norton as the Leper King plays his part behind a mask
of one sort or another, but manages to play the role with magnificently crippled
Jeremy Irons is brilliantly understated as the chief adviser to the king; David
Thewlis (Lupin in the third Harry Potter) is unforgettable as the wise but self-sacrificing hospitaler; and Marton Csokas as the evil baron Guy de Lusignan
and Brendand Gleeson as the bloody-handed warmonger Reynald chew the
scenery without losing believability. (Gleeson will look especially familiar
because he has been in every movie that needed a ham-handed Celt for the
past twenty years. But this is by far his finest role.)
Yes, the really evil guys are all Christians; but so are most of the noblest
characters. It was a cruel time, and short-sighted ambition and ruthless
fanaticism were neither rare nor particularly frowned on.
Ghassan Massoud as Saladin brings extraordinary force to the greatest figure
of the Crusades -- the brilliant leader of the Muslim forces that broke the back
of the Crusader kingdoms. Honored by his Christian enemies for his chivalry
even in his own time, Saladin is written and acted with greatness, and
Massoud is strong, wielding authority with easy confidence.
The movie is bloody, but not pornographically so. In making war movies, the
filmmaker is torn between the need to be restrained enough for audiences to be
able to bear the experience, while still be truthful. Gone are the days of war
movies where people die with no more than a trickle of blood -- limbs and
heads are hacked away and people die of their infected wounds.
Which brings me to the moral root of the story: Liam Neeson playing the baron
Godfrey, the father that Balian never knew he had. With relatively little screen
time, Neeson is finally given a chance to play a part worthy of his talent -- a
complicated, driven man that we believe could inspire his resentful son to take
up the Crusaders' cause and lead his small domain with wisdom and decency.
I'm at an age where I am more inclined to see a romantic comedy than a
brutally realistic historical epic. But mostly that's because historical epics
have been so bad for most of the past thirty years, when they were attempted
at all. Nor does this movie displace A Man for All Seasons or A Lion in Winter
for me. It does not reach for such idealism or such high drama. But where
Kingdom of Heaven takes us, you can see them from there.
As for Orlando Bloom: He is a fine actor, and he will be a star. His brand of
heroism is somewhere between Henry Fonda and Errol Flynn, and with the
right scripts, he can make a permanent mark in the world of film.
Ray Bradbury is one of the great American writers. He deserves -- and is
gradually coming to have -- a place in the canon. You can't understand
American literature in the second half of the 20th century if you haven't read
Dandelion Wine, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, I Sing the Body
Electric, The October Country, or Something Wicked This Way Comes.
His work first appeared just before television killed off the fiction magazines.
Saturday Evening Post and other mainstream magazines published many of his
stories; but he felt himself to be part of the science fiction community,
attending their conventions and befriending other sci-fi writers.
Still, by strict accounting very few of Bradbury's stories are science fiction, and
many are not even fantasy. But let us call him a fantasist, a lyric storyteller
who makes even the stuff of ordinary life feel magical. Dandelion Wine may not
violate the rules of reality, but when you return from that world it still feels as
if you have been in fairyland. The fairyland of childhood, or at least of
It is long past time for Bradbury's life to be put on record, and with a book by
Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury:
Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future, we finally have a worthy
Because this is an authorized biography, and Bradbury gave almost
unprecedented access and cooperation to Weller, this biography does not suffer
from the usual flaw of biographies -- a paucity of information about the
Instead, as is completely appropriate for this writer of the epic of childhood,
Bradbury's early years are thoroughly explored. Bradbury mined his childhood
experiences and relationships throughout his writing career, modeling many
characters quite openly on figures from his life. And Weller misses no
opportunity to show the connections between Bradbury's early life and his
Much of the biography depends on Bradbury's reminiscences, but Weller is not
slavishly dependent. There are times when memory and written records
disagree, and Weller is not shy about making it clear that it may not be exactly
as Bradbury recalls.
The only serious drawback in this book is the way that Bradbury's vanity is
inadvertently revealed. While Weller does not exactly gush, he clearly believes
that Bradbury is a "genius" and his tone is well over the line into
This would be all well and good, if it weren't for the fact that in quotation after
quotation from Bradbury himself, it is clear that Bradbury shares Weller's
assessment of his own talent and achievements.
Now, it is the essence of humility to know yourself -- your strengths and your
But our culture is cursed with the tendency to make demigods out of
celebrities; and when people are constantly telling you that you are worthy of
worship, it is perhaps natural to begin to take their worship as your due.
This sets celebrities up for bitter disappointment when their star falls. But
Bradbury's star is not going to fall -- his work really is wonderful and
important; he really did change both the culture in general and literature in
So he will apparently go to his grave believing that he is somehow "above" the
level of the ordinary mortal. When in fact he is merely different -- verbally
gifted, insightful, and of a personality type that makes him more prone to write
and perform. Just as other people have other talents and dispositions that
lead them to athletic achievement or political power or scientific innovation.
It is good to give due recognition to those who have achieved great things. But
it is not at all good to think that these achievements show that they are
intrinsically better than other people -- or, even more absurdly, that they are of
a different kind of human being.
This is the mindset that leads us to give a get-out-of-hell-free card to talented
people who are quite dreadful human beings -- a category that certainly does
not include Ray Bradbury. But even when the "genius" is a genial fellow who
means no harm to any living soul, when he is treated worshipfully he is bound
to get a feeling of entitlement, a certainty that whatever he does will be better
and more important than what other people do.
Most people have constant reminders that they are not, in fact, better or more
important than other people, and I think this is a good thing.
Those who find themselves surrounded by people who treat them worshipfully
need to run away from those people and seek out the company of the
unimpressed. It will keep their feet on firmer moral ground. It will also help
them continue to learn and grow, because they won't be so perfectly satisfied
with even mediocre work, as long as it's their own.
The fact that Bradbury spent so much time in the company of the worshipful
Sam Weller resulted in a fascinating and valuable biography. But it is also a
symptom of the kind of life Bradbury has been leading for many years now.
And I fear that it shows up in his fiction and, even more, in his poetry. From
The Halloween Tree on, Bradbury's work has lost its edge. Only flashes of the
early intensity and brilliant workmanship survive. His poetry is all gush and
little control of form, as if his prose were simply cut loose from the requirement
that it make sense, without then acquiring the density of meaning and
perfection of expression that makes poetry good.
If Bradbury had not been so lionized, perhaps he would have felt a need to
change and improve, to grow into new understanding. Instead, he seems to
have grown complacent -- a message that is inadvertently revealed by Weller's
If it were not so, Bradbury could not have read this book, with all of its
extravagant praise, and then written for the cover a statement that this book is
But one of the tragedies of our celebrity worship is that some "geniuses" are
aware of the difference between how they are assessed by the public and what
they actually deserve, and it gnaws at them; while others are blissfully
unaware of any difference, and they embrace the worship of others. Bradbury
seems to be in the latter category, which I suppose makes him much happier
than the former sort.
'Tis but a quibble. Bradbury is the real thing: a great writer. And this book is
a good, solid, honest, well-researched, and only occasionally overwritten
biography. That makes it well above average, among authorized biographies.
The web browser Mozilla Firefox is the free replacement for Microsoft's
annoying Explorer. Modeled on Netscape Navigator -- you remember, that was
the program that virtually invented web browsing before it was killed by
Microsoft's monopolistic practices -- Firefox adds nifty touches that make the
nets a much happier place to be.
And since it costs absolutely nothing, what can you lose?
I wish I could work up similar enthusiasm about Mozilla's equally free email
I've been searching for years for a way to get out of AOL. One of my biggest
reasons is the horrible way AOL forces you to keep your email records in their
proprietary compressed file. The only way to extract the mail and put it in
regular files is to cut and paste it email by email. When you have seven
thousand letters in your database, that process is too hideous to contemplate.
So your choice is either to discard your entire correspondence, spend months
copying and printing it, or maintain it all on disk and never, never, never leave
AOL. Which is undoubtedly their plan.
AOL also tries to keep you from leaving by refusing to let you export your list of
email addresses to another program. Everything will have to be entered by
hand, address by address. You can't even print it out. Ludicrous -- sure, it
keeps you with AOL a few weeks longer, but makes you hate them and vow you
will never return once you make the break.
So I thought -- fool that I am -- that by picking up another email program I
could solve the problem. My emails would be stored as simple files,
uncompressed and readable by any program.
Guess what? Thunderbird is almost as bad. The emails are saved in a
proprietary compressed format that can't be easily exported to a real word
processor. And Eudora is no better.
Is there no "plain paper" email utility? Am I the only person who actually
keeps his emails and wants them on paper for permanent archiving?
But for now, there's little point in my switching away from AOL. The process
will be tedious and painful, and if I end up no better off than I am now, I might
as well stay where I am ...
Thank heaven for Laptop Lane. There are other airport computer services --
wi-fi hot spots, business lounges, and so on -- but Laptop Lane offers
everything. Including everything you forgot (I can't believe I didn't bring an
Ethernet cable with me on this trip!).
And when I'm on the road and need to meet the demanding deadline of the
rigorous Rhino schedule, Laptop Lane has proven itself the best resource for
making the link and transferring the file when I have only a few minutes