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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 12, 2006

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

Panther, Portable Printer, Attolia, and Druids

I didn't see any reason for anyone to remake the Pink Panther comedies. Starting with The Pink Panther (1963) and A Shot in the Dark (1964), Blake Edwards as director and Peter Sellers as actor created one of the great comic characters of film history.

A Shot in the Dark was based on a French play, L'Idiot by Marcel Achard, thus explaining the French setting. The play was apparently translated or adapted into English by Harry Kumitz, and the screenplay was written by William Peter Blatty (yep, the Exorcist guy) with a co-writing credit also going to director Edwards. (The Pink Panther was co-written by Maurice Richlin, who wrote Operation Petticoat and Pillow Talk)

But what brought it to life was Peter Sellers's perfect performance. A comedy about a vain but stupid man who carries a gun and wields authority with utter incompetence might seem easy to bring off, but acting dumb isn't necessarily funny. The comedy is more enduring and emotionally engaging if we believe in the character.

And that takes acting. Peter Sellers did it superbly. Who would be dumb enough to remake these films?

Steve Martin!

The Steve Martin interpretation of The Pink Panther just had a strong opening weekend -- strong for February, anyway -- and the audience laughed and laughed. Including me and my wife. Not just the storyline, but also much of the Clouseau shtick has been reinvented -- quite humorously.

There is nothing to hate about this movie and much to recommend it. Unless you know the originals. And then you find yourself wincing a bit at the things Steve Martin can't do.

Now, I'm a fan of Steve Martin. He's a smart guy and a very good comic. He has several films that are among my favorites, ever (All of Me, LA Story). But as he already showed us in Leap of Faith, he is not a deeply emotional actor. When believability absolutely depends on getting strong emotions or feelings right, Martin isn't always up to the job. (And for the nitpickers -- you know who you are -- "emotions" and "feelings" are not the same thing: Pain, for instance, is a feeling, but not an emotion.)

In other words, when the comedy needs nothing more than the surface of the character, there's nobody better than Martin. The second you have to get deeper than the skin, Martin simply isn't there.

Take a tiny example: Fairly early in the film, Martin gets a sharp shock from an electric appliance. He conceals his pain for a moment, until the woman he's trying to impress turns her back. Then he shows us his pain.

And that's just what he does. While she's watching, he feels nothing; when she turns her back, he still feels nothing, but he shows us that it hurts.

Sellers would have subtly shown us, as Martin could not, that it hurt all along; and instead of showing us, when the woman's back was turned he would have allowed the already-present pain to show through, only to be reined in again.

The difference may sound subtle in discussion, but not when you see it on the screen. Martin's way is right for a Saturday Night Live sketch or a movie like The Jerk. But it was not right for Clouseau.

It doesn't help that there is a perfect contrast: Kevin Kline, playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus. Kline is a superb actor. Every moment is real. Moment by moment he is not as funny (he is not supposed to be); but cumulatively, his is the more successfully created character. I'd be more interested in seeing another film about his Dreyfus than Martin's Clouseau.

Come to think of it, Jean Reno, as Clouseau's assigned sidekick, is also wonderful -- and his French accent is real.

I know, Martin gets a lot of comic mileage from the French accent (always an absurdity in the Pink Panther franchise, since presumably everybody in Paris speaks French, and yet it is only Clouseau whose accent is unintelligible). But Martin never actually bothered to learn a decent French accent. For instance, he persists in pronouncing R at the beginning of a syllable as a W. There is no French accent that does this. It's a guttural, not a labial. He also gets about half the vowels hopelessly wrong. So he remains an American doing a rather bad French accent. Whereas Sellers had the accent dead on, making it much funnier -- and more real.

The result is the bizarre scene where Clouseau is attempting to learn an American accent. The whole film has revealed his inability to lose his American vowels, and suddenly now he's having trouble? And because he does not have a convincing French accent, he is reduced to getting the consonants wrong in the word "hamburger." As if the word were a tonguetwister. Funny enough, I suppose, but not as funny as if he had actually been "unable" to pronounce the word correctly while really trying.

Beyonce Knowles is lovely in the movie, and Emily Mortimer shows herself to be an excellent comedienne as Kline's secretary (and Clouseau's love interest).

Look, if you've never seen any Pink Panther movies -- and maybe even if you have -- this is a perfectly delightful comedy, worth the price of admission. Especially if you go to a matinee.

But you should also rent or buy the 1963 The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark-- the first two movies in the original series. (In the first, you'll get the added bonus of a wonderful performance by the great comedian David Niven.)


For many years I got along fine without having a portable printer to go with my laptop computer.

Most of the time when I was traveling I could simply email my work home and have it printed out there -- or submit it electronically to a publisher the way I submit my columns to the Rhino.

Usually I wish for a printer only when I need to write a speech while on the road.

Not that I can't write speeches in longhand. In fact, it's often better that way. In longhand, I know I'm not going to write out the whole speech word for word. I have to write it as notes, and so I deliver it in natural English instead of reading it.

The trouble is that then all I have are longhand notes. If I could write a speech outline on the computer, it would be in digital form. I could have all my old speeches with me on my laptop, and steal from my old speeches when I'm too tired and distracted to think of anything new to say.

After all these years of working on computer, it feels so ... dangerous, I guess ... to have a document exist only on paper. It's so fragile. And lose-able.

In fact, we're suffering horrors right now because a set of maps I created nearly thirty years ago, for a fantasy world that I am just now preparing to write about, have disappeared. Because they were never scanned, the only copies we are likely to find are the paper ones. But we can't locate them anywhere. It's not like losing nuclear secrets, but to me, it's quite disappointing.

Paper documents can't be trusted. But digital ones you can copy endlessly on many different computers so they can't be lost.

It was only when I started commuting to Southern Virginia University every week that I began to need a portable printer. I had to be able to print things for my classes and create documents for other professors or administrators.

I was happy to find that portable printers have changed a lot since I last looked. For one thing, in the days of dot-matrix or laser printers, portability was a joke. But I hated inkjet printers because of their smeariness.

Well, the smeariness is mostly gone, especially if you use the right paper. And they can work wonders in a very, very small space.

The printer I settled on after trying many was the Canon iP90. It's as thick as two novels stacked together, and a little wider; it closes into a nice, tight package; and it's very light.

I simply left it in the trunk of my car, and brought it out only when I got to the university.

Then I was packing for a trip to Cincinnati and Anaheim, where I needed to give three different speeches in three days. None of which I had actually written before getting on the plane. (The reason is not laziness -- it's that I learned years ago that I completely rewrite all my speeches in the last few hours before giving them, so why bother writing them beforehand only to discard that speech?)

I tucked my Canon iP90 inside a small, well-padded case, packed the case inside a suitbag, and checked it. It traveled under the airplane and came out just fine at the other end.

I love this printer. It gives clear type -- almost as clear as the laser printers I use in most other places -- and it does very good color. The ink isn't horribly expensive, as inkjet cartridges go.

One thing to keep in mind, though. The printer software warns you that the printer is running low on ink as much as fifty pages before you actually run out.

So if you replace it the moment you get a low-ink warning, you'll be wasting a significant portion of the ink. However, if you have a critical printout and it runs out in the middle, the result is unreadable. So I treat the low-ink notice as a "time to buy ink" message, and then don't print any long documents without sitting right there to catch it if the ink fails in the middle.

It's a truly portable printer that is also good enough to use as your main printer.


It's a really bad idea to start a trilogy with the second volume. But I was traveling and desperate for something good to read. The bookstore didn't have the first volume; the third volume was only out in hardcover, and why spring for that when you don't even know if you like the series yet?

So I bought volume two.

The author is Megan Whalen Turner. The first volume is The Thief. The third volume is The King of Attolia. And the book I read is The Queen of Attolia.

The titles notwithstanding, all three books are mainly about the thief, though he's no ordinary cutpurse or burglar. This young adult fantasy is set in an ancient Greek land where one of the kingdoms has a semi-hereditary office called "the Queen's (or King's) Thief." He's a one-man intelligence service, creeping into other kings' palaces and eavesdropping, stealing documents, or (occasionally) conducting "diplomacy with prejudice" -- i.e., assassination.

This is a world with little magic, and what there is comes from the workings of the gods. They are not the familiar gods of Greek mythology, just as none of these little kingdoms corresponds with any real city-state of ancient Greece. The Thief is named Eugenides, which is the same name as the god of thieves whom he serves. He is downright pious about it -- but in the process of the story he begins to have good reasons that the very gods he serves have come to hate him.

He is caught by an enemy and, in the traditional (but rarely used) punishment for thieves, his right hand is cut off. And that's only the beginning of his troubles. By the end of the fascinating, compelling story, he has a very long list of complaints against the gods.

In fact, because I read this just before rereading C.S. Lewis's finest novel, Till We Have Faces, it seemed obvious to me that Turner has to be familiar with Lewis's work, which is also set in an imaginary kingdom in the vicinity of ancient Greece, with imaginary gods, and with a main character who has a long list of complaints against the gods who have, she believes, used her ill.

It might be coincidence. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Turner's novel is, for me at least, even more emotionally effective than Lewis's, if only because the writing is less distant and we rather like the main character better.

Turner's handling of personal politics and diplomacy in an era when kingdoms were very small is as accurate as I think a modern writer can achieve. More to the point, she creates intriguing characters who grow more important to us as they become more complex.

Sometimes she seems to cheat a little, withholding from us information that is perfectly well known to the main characters. But in fact she's quite careful not to use the viewpoint of the character who knows the secret during the time she's keeping the secret from us. It's a deft juggling act, but she pulls it off with flair.

Needless to say, I'll be reading The Thief and The King of Attolia as soon as I can lay hands on copies of them. Still, I'm happy to report that you don't have to have read the first book to understand -- and enjoy -- the second.

For me, Turner joins the very small pantheon of strong, realistic fantasy writers who are making of this genre something very fine indeed.


Since writing the above, I bought and read King of Attolia. It is, if anything, even better.

Though the same characters continue from the previous story, this is a different kind of book. The magical element in this "fantasy" is very, very slight. Instead, this is a Graustark novel -- a story set in an imaginary kingdom -- and it focuses on political intrigue, threatened assassination, trust, and personal relationships.

Another thing this book isn't is "young adult." Yes, a couple of main characters are young -- but in an era when they could already function in adult roles. And I wonder if this book might be too sophisticated for a lot of young readers. Not because of sex, for the book shows none, but because Turner writes about small-kingdom politics at a very high level.

But then, there is no place in our society where personal politics is carried on with more ruthlessness and intensity than junior high school. No matter how much childish behavior you find in Congress or university faculties, image-building, character-assassination, and jockeying for position reach their peak among seventh and eighth graders. So this novel may be exactly right for that age group.

It's also an adult book, however -- an unusually entertaining and intelligent one -- and I recommend it highly. Give the gross-out thrillers a break and pick up something that will actually exercise your brain and leave you feeling rather good about being human.


The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey among the Ancient Celts, by Philip Freeman, is another entry in a very small but wonderful category of history books: Stories about ancient discoveries that can be recovered only by piecing together fragments of "lost" books quoted by other authors whose works survived.

In this case, we reconstruct the ancient journey of the Greek Philosopher Posidonius among the Iberocelts and Celts prior to Roman conquest.

Along the way, author Freeman pulls in everything else we know about the Celts of that era from archaeology, from linguistics, and from other ancient writers, then sifts the evidence in front of our eyes so we can reach our own conclusions -- though his judgment is sound and in most cases we should rely on his thinking.

The result is a compelling, sometimes disturbing, but always entertaining (to me, anyway!) account of the ancestors of most French and Spanish people. (In later invasions, the conquerors only thinly overlaid the Celtic aboriginals.)

After years of hearing that we know nothing about the Druids, this book reveals that we actually know rather a lot. There are social patterns that seem rather odd or amusing -- the kind of thing people are likely to make up about foreigners -- but when they are attested to by Posidonius, who actually moved among them, along with corroboration from other ancient writers, there is no reason to suppose they could not be true.

This book serves as a strong companion volume to Barry Cunliffe's The Extraordinary Voyage of Pytheas the Greek, which I reviewed some time ago. Between them we not only get a good picture of extra-Roman Europe, but also of wide-ranging interests and bold travels of Greeks, back in the era when, through their traders and itinerant philosophers, they were the dominant culture of the western world.


We've been using Dial Complete self-foaming hand soap for some years now. I'm happy to report that they have finally introduced a new cap, which does a better job of foaming the soap and works more smoothly. The original cap was sometimes hard to line up properly so you could get the full pumping action without the plastic parts snagging on each other. All better now.

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