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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 vengeful army.

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 movie.

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 dignity.

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 childhood remembered.

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 biography.

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 author's childhood.

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 fiction.

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 worshipfulness.

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 weaknesses.

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 particular.

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 worshipful biography.

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 his life.

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 program, Thunderbird.

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 between flights.


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