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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 5, 2005

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


Hero, Connelly, Illuminator, Blooming English, Pizza, and Applesauce

When you consider how little interest I have in martial arts movie, and how little I look forward to seeing films with subtitles, it's no wonder that I kept putting off seeing the 2002 film Hero, a Chinese film starring Jet Li as a character named "Nameless."

I meant to see it -- I had so many friends telling me that it was wonderful. But nothing they said about it actually interested me. Yes, I had seen and enjoyed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and then I saw The Matrix and its spawn, and I was done with wire-work fight scenes. Very pretty, but how many times can I be dazzled by the same effects? I wanted a story now.

Apparently the writers of Hero heard my demand and delivered.

Hero is a kind of founding myth, a story from the earliest days of Chinese history. It's an utterly fictional account of assassins who try to murder the King of Qin because of his endless wars of conquest against other nations -- conquests that would lead directly to the founding of the first Chinese Empire.

The titular hero is, in best spaghetti-western fashion, named "Nameless."

It's presented as a tale within a tale (within a tale): Nameless is brought before the King of Qin to tell the story of how he vanquished all three of the assassins who had tried to kill him before. So almost all of the film is told as a series of flashbacks, each showing us more of what happened that led to this moment.

As my son pointed out to me later, nearly every fight in these flashbacks is a foregone conclusion, since one of the participants obviously lived to tell the tale. So the fights have to be viewed as dances or rituals, not as contests whose outcome is in doubt.

Only near the end does the fighting and game-playing lead to a resolution that means something more than personal contests between actors on wires; but when that moment is reached, it's a rewarding one.

The true star of the film is the cinematography. I'm on record as detesting flashy camera work like the arty filtering in The Aviator last year. But in this movie, the color schemes, the wind effects, the stark contrasts in scenery, and absolutely beautiful choreography and the posed acting, all worked together to create something that could not have been created otherwise.

We were not supposed to believe this movie, we were intended to dream it, and to remember it upon waking as if it had been a vision.

So I can understand why it has been a worldwide hit. I can also understand that it is meant to evoke Chinese patriotism and to give meaning to the sacrifices of those who have died for their country.

But it does have those subtitles. For me, the acting overcame that curse, and it is certainly better to hear the actors' own voices, their own intonations, than to have the dialogue dubbed. If you're able to give yourself to this movie, you'll find real beauty and power in it. If not, then it'll be a tedious exercise in unbelievable martial arts interspersed with long passages of heroic dialogue or stoic silence.

*

When people ask me which living authors I read and admire, one of the first I mention is Michael Connelly, who has taken the police procedural and made it a thing of beauty. In The Closers, his latest book, Connelly brings Harry Bosch back to the LAPD from his retirement, working on cold cases with his old partner.

The truth behind the story is that LAPD really has been going through a drastic self-reinvention, as they were forced to face some of their own demons. (What is not clear is that LAPD was actually worse than most police departments; authority and solidarity have a tendency to corrupt everywhere.)

Morale was so bad that officers quit and took early retirement in record numbers. The department had trouble putting enough officers on the street to keep any semblance of peace in the city. (And, as always, those most badly hurt were the poor.)

So the real LAPD has been trying to lure some of those experienced officers back. The fictional Harry Bosch's return is Connelly's attempt to show what it's like to return to an old place and find that it's had a thorough remodeling -- but with a few old nooks and crannies still show the old paint or wallpaper.

The first cold case Harry takes on is the murder of a sixteen-year-old girl -- more of an execution, really, than a murder. It turns out that for various political reasons, the possibility of its being part of a hate crime -- she had multiracial parents -- was suppressed during the investigation, which kept the true murderer from being discovered.

Connelly's gift is to make his detective characters real without letting their story overcome the mystery that drives the plot. Bosch is an old-fashioned kind of cop -- he really cares about justice. If somebody gets "closure" or "healing" along the way, fine. But for him, the blood of the murdered cries out for the murderer to be known and named.

It's one of the best books so far in a fine career. If you've never read any Connelly, this is as good a place to start as any.

*

I wish I could tell you good things about Brenda Rickman Vantrease's The Illuminator. Set in England in the time of Chaucer and Wycliffe, the story concerns a widow who, in order to keep the Church from bringing ruin on her house, takes in as a boarder an illuminator -- a man who paints the pictures in fine manuscripts.

The book began very well, I thought, with powerful characters and surprising, compelling events, like a dwarf who tries to save a toddler from being mauled by a pig. But the only way to save her is to kill the pig -- and the pig belongs to the bishop, which makes its killing an ecclesiastical crime.

Vantrease seemed at first to be committed to recreating an era full of fascinating contradictions; her research was excellent and her characters well drawn.

But the farther I got into the book, the more it became obvious that the historical reality was only a veneer for an ordinary "literary romance" -- which is just like a regular romance novel, only slower. Worse yet, the two main characters -- the widow and the illuminator -- aren't of their time at all. The author has merely transplanted a couple of people with thoroughly modern attitudes to a time when such attitudes were, quite literally, unthinkable.

As a result, I finally reached a point where I gave up on the book. The author wasn't taking me to 14th-century England. She was taking me to an extended episode of The O.C., but in costume. I don't watch The O.C., either, but at least the people are dressed right for the oh-so-modern attitudes they show.

And, while the Church of that era had plenty of corruption -- Boccaccio and Chaucer back her up on this -- Vantrease is relentless in her depiction of the Church as vile and hypocritical. But that, too, is a very modern attitude, even though it ignores the fact that there were many good priests and many sincere believers. No, what we have here is the standard modern attitude in Smartland that "spirituality" is good, but "religion" is invariably evil.

It just makes me tired. Don't Smartlander writers realize they're just spouting the party line exactly the way books from the fifties showed Communists or Nazis as the bad guys in all circumstances and every period? It's modern propaganda thinly disguised as a "historical" novel.

But maybe you'll like it. Certainly the audio performance I listened to (Simon Jones reading for Audio Renaissance) was excellent. You probably won't find yourself yelling at the tape deck in your car, the way I was. And if you want a period spinoff of The O.C., then this is the book for you.

*

Kate Burridge is an Australian language maven, so Blooming English is full of references to words and terms and cultural attitudes that won't make a lick of sense to American readers.

But that's half the fun. Unlike some language books I've reviewed here, this one is absolutely aimed at nonspecialist readers. She gives very sensible advice and refuses to take sides in most of the battles between rejectionists who refuse to accept any changes from the grammar rules they grew up with and the change-is-natural crowd who are thrilled to see old rules die and new ones replace them.

She even has a chapter on the development of personal names and one on dirty words (so be warned -- to talk about them, she prints them on the page).

Did you know that the names Katherine and Kathryn take the nickname Kate or Kat -- without the th sound -- because for a time in the distant past the th was not pronounced the way we say it today? Ditto with Betty from Elizabeth and Tony from Anthony and Dotty from Dorothy -- the full name didn't have our modern th sound, so the nickname didn't either.

The sound written th was not really the same as t, either (it was aspirated rather than fricated), which is why in Old English it was written with runic letters that we have since dropped from the alphabet (which gave rise to "Ye Olde Shoppe" even though the "Ye" was originally "The," with the th spelled with a letter called a thorn). When the th sound in these names changed to the way we say it now, the t in the nicknames didn't.

OK, so maybe you don't care. But I love this stuff.

The main value of the book is simply to reassure readers that yes, the language really is changing all around us and no, the way you learned to speak it isn't wrong, it's just not "standard." Standard English has its uses -- and she makes a strong case for them -- so it's a good idea to learn how to speak it, write it, and understand it. But it's all right to let your native dialect remain your language of everyday speech.

*

Lexar's tiny MP3/FM radio player looked like a wonderful idea -- which is why I bought it. The theory is that you load it up with your MP3s, take it out to the car, and then it broadcasts on an FM station so your car stereo will play your tunes through the radio.

Two problems. The first one is that the software inside the Lexar LDP-800 is so badly designed and the user interface is so crude that it takes a ridiculous amount of time just to figure out how to get it to do anything. Every button does six different jobs. But somehow there's not one hint in the manual about how to switch from listening to the FM radio to playing MP3s. You can get to the radio from the MP3 library, you just can't get back again in any rational way.

(What finally worked was to reset the whole thing, which erased all my other choices. It was maddening.)

The second problem is that after spending an inordinately long time learning how to work the thing, the signal that it emits is pathetically weak. It simply can't overpower even the weakest FM station without covering your MP3s with static and interference.

This flaw is obviously avoidable -- my XM radio uses the same method and while it is also slightly susceptible to interference, it is always quite listenable and usually sounds pure. The Lexar simply doesn't have enough guts to be used inside your car, unless you're in an area so isolated that there isn't an FM station within two channels of the one you've selected to broadcast on.

They really had a good idea. I wish they had done a better job of it.

*

I got the normal flood of "how dare you" letters about my rant on the subject of hype about Apple computer products. The letters were full of the very hype I was complaining about, of course -- to hear Mac users, you'd think Apple delivered them perfect software and hardware all the time, with never a crash or lockup or maddeningly inefficient interface.

But power users -- the people who push a computer to its limits in the course of their daily work -- know the truth: Apple makes idiotic decisions just like Microsoft does. It's just that Mac users have no choice but to live with what they're given from On High.

And to prove that point very entertainingly there's a great comedy video available online, written and performed by a Mac user who continues to work on the Mac every day.

His rant isn't because he hates the Mac. It's because he hates the way Apple (just like Microsoft) imposes on its customers by giving them software that is stupidly designed or badly executed. It's quite possible to believe that a particular computer is the best thing around and still be furious at the way careless designers have made it needlessly difficult to work with.

This video is a long download even with a cable modem, but I thought it was worth it. It also has some bad words in it, so if you mind that sort of thing, don't watch it. The originating website is the Happy Nowhere comedy team at: http://www.happynowhere.net/mac_parody.php. But we've also got it online at http://www.hatrack.com.

*

I found it at D'Agostino's in New York City (a model urban grocery store, by the way), and have no idea if you can get it anywhere else. It's organic unsweetened applesauce from Vermont Village Cannery. If, like me, applesauce is an important part of your diet, this is the real thing.

It consists of pesticide-free apples, pureed about as fine as they can be without becoming apple juice, with a little Vitamin C added so they can advertise 100% RDI on the packaging. It's pasteurized so it's safe; and it's delicious.

And when I can't get Vermont Village, I'll stick with White House or Mott's natural applesauce -- the kind without added sweetening. Who needs to add sugar to apples?

*

You're in Manhattan. You want pizza. There are plenty of pizza joints around, but you want to know, in advance, that it's good pizza.

First, search your soul. By "good pizza" do you mean lots of stringy cheese, thick crust, and heavy heaps of pizza toppings? Then there are lots of places that you'll enjoy -- in Manhattan, you're probably OK choosing at random.

But if by "good pizza" you mean fresh ingredients, delicate flavors, thin crust, fresh mozzarella cheese that doesn't string up, and sauces so perfectly spiced that you can't believe everybody doesn't make pizza like this ... well, then you're at Totonno's Pizzeria Napolitano.

There are two of them in Manhattan, both on Second Avenue, one at 26th St. and the other between 80th and 81st. They also have great panini and good salads. I know from the experience of friends that serious pizza lovers will take the subway from midtown to get there for lunch. That's commitment.

*

Next week: My report on Book Expo America, the huge annual convention where publishers offer their wares to booksellers.


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