Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 19, 2006
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Sellers, Oil, Crows, Copperfield, and Robicheaux
After watching the Steve Martin Pink Panther last week, we had to watch the
Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers versions for the first time in many years.
We were surprised to realize that the original Pink Panther was really an
ensemble piece. Peter Sellers already should have been a star from his
hilarious 1959 The Mouse That Roared, in which he played (at least) three
roles, but judging from the forgettable films between then and the 1963 Pink
Panther, he apparently wasn't deemed ready to carry a film to commercial
So the 1963 Pink Panther gives top billing to David Niven, who sleepwalks
charmingly through a role that might have been a parody of Cary Grant's jewel
thief in To Catch a Thief. Robert Wagner, who was still playing boyish roles in
his thirties, Capucine, and Claudia Cardinale rounded out a high-profile cast.
So the original film was not a "Clouseau" film -- rather, Sellers's physical
comedy stole the movie out from under everyone else.
A Shot in the Dark doesn't really feel like a sequel, in that it makes no
reference to the events of The Pink Panther. And it is definitely about Clouseau
-- no all-star ensemble this time! It is hardly a surprise, though, for by this
time Sellers was a certifiable star. Since Pink Panther, he had already stolen
Dr. Strangelove by again playing multiple parts, including the title character,
and The World of Henry Orient was a favorite of many. And he was about to
appear as Dr. Fassbender in What's New, Pussycat.
It would be ten years before a series of forgettable films and a waning career
(the usual reason for doing sequels so long after the original) drove him to
return to the Clouseau role in 1975's The Return of the Pink Panther, followed
by The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Revenge of the Pink Panther
(1978). And his most acclaimed role, as Chance in Being There, came on the
heels of these box office successes.
Steve Martin's new version of Clouseau is really based on the sequels from the
1970s, which were already parodies and pastiches of the original two films.
Sellers's The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark suffer from hindsight -- it is
easy to forget that these were the films in which the Clouseau shtick was
In creating the sequels in the 1970s, Blake Edwards seems to have gone back
to Shot in the Dark and said to himself, "What was funny? OK, we'll do that
again." And it worked -- financially and comically. But, if you can drive the
sequels from your memory, the originals remain somehow more pure -- the
moments of discovery rather than of exploitation.
Still, don't expect greatness. These were always fundamentally silly films. It is
Sellers who was great, not the movies he appeared in.
My wife and I were walking through the remodeled Westfield Mall in Century
City, Los Angeles, when we saw a sight that brightened my day: a new store
devoted entirely to a variety of gourmet olive oils.
O&Co. (Oliviers and Co. Mediterranean Food Merchant, at
http://oliviersandco.com) has shelves lined with cans of olive oils from
different countries -- France, Italy, and Greece, of course, but also Portugal
and Spain, Turkey and India, Madagascar and Australia. All first cold
pressings, most of them touted as exclusive.
We started picking cans off the shelves, guided by the salesclerk's explanation
that the more robust flavors were toward the right, the milder toward the left.
Then we noticed the price -- the cans averaged forty dollars each for 16.8
So we chose two, and fretted at the extravagance.
We had them shipped home to Greensboro, and when we opened them we
made it something of a ceremony. We prepared caprese salads with buffala
mozzarella and drizzled oil over them, and we also poured them into dipping
dishes for bread.
And voila! ... Anticlimax.
Robust? Hardly. If I had asked for dipping oil in a restaurant that normally
didn't offer it, I would have been pleasantly surprised to be served these, as
unusually flavorful cooking oils. Not as the robust, flavorful oils I had been led
At these prices, I expected to have something wonderful, like the oils that are
offered on the menu at Campanile on La Brea in Los Angeles, where, at almost
exactly the same per-ounce price as O&Co.'s oils, I have been served oils that
gave meaning to words like "subtle" and "brilliant," "grassy" and "nutty." I've
had oils that have a slight afterburn in the throat and oils with aromas that
leave a delicious sting in the nose.
Now, maybe we happened to choose the only two boring oils on the shelf. Or
maybe the olive oils at Campanile are vulgar and the oils from O&Co. are
distinguished in ways so subtle that only the true connoisseur can appreciate.
If so, then I prefer to be vulgar. It's like people who claim they can hear a
deadening effect in the digital music on CDs, and prefer analog recordings. Let
them please their sensitive tastes -- I can't tell the difference, except that CDs
don't have the pop and hiss of LP records. If I'm missing the subtleties in the
oils from O&Co., I concede the point immediately.
I'm going to try one more time, ordering online from the Rameaux d'Or
selection. But there's a limit to how much money I'm willing to spend just to
This is the era of the huge fantasy series -- massive books that pile up, volume
on volume, as the writer creates a whole world, and then aspires to tell us the
life story of every person living in it.
Or at least it can seem this way. I gave up on the Robert Jordan Wheel of Time
series many volumes ago -- the movement through the story was simply too
But George R. R. Martin is still holding me firmly with his series A Song of
Ice and Fire. The latest volume, A Feast for Crows, checks in at 684 close-packed pages -- but it doesn't feel all that long.
Martin has so many storylines that he's following that in previous volumes it
has become maddening. I began to subvert his writing order by reading one
character's storyline through to the end, skipping over the other chapters, just
to get some kind of continuity.
With this volume, Martin has kindly done some of that for us. This book
follows only about half the characters' storylines through a crucial period; what
is happening with the other characters during the same timeframe will be told
in the next volume. This was an excellent decision on Martin's part, because it
allows the storylines we do have to come to some kind of fruition. The only
frustration is that most of the characters I like best and care most about are in
the other book.
What's the point, though, of trying to tell you the plot of a massive literary work
that is in midstream? The whole series is set on an imaginary continent where
civil war is tearing apart what was once a unified empire, while at the northern
border, a relative handful of dedicated soldiers is struggling to repel an
invasion of monstrous "others" who are threatening to breach the wall and
invade the civilized lands to the south.
Meanwhile, the daughter of the previous ruling house has gone to another
continent where she has brought about the hatching of three dragons -- along
with winning the loyalty of desert tribes that she is using to liberate slaves in
the cities along the desert's edge. Now, though, rumors of her dragons have
been heard back on the mainland, and many contenders in the civil wars are
plotting to enlist her dragons on their side.
This does not even begin to tell you why this story is wonderful, though,
because it's all about the characters. Dickens would have felt right at home
with the extravagance of Martin's characterizations. Martin has a gift for
making his people instantly real and fascinating, so that even minor
characters, who exist only to be killed within a few pages, stick in our memory.
As for those who are already reading the series, it has been so long since the
previous volumes were published (nearly six years!) that few readers will
remember exactly what happened before.
My son and his wife solved the problem by rereading the first three books
before attempting the fourth. If you have the time, this is the best course --
though it does add to the frustration of not following half the storylines, when
they've just been freshened in your mind.
I tried it the hard way -- I just started listening to it on cd (an excellent reading
by John Lee) and struggled to keep up.
Ultimately, I had to buy the penultimate volume, Storm of Swords, and reread
some of the last chapters in order to get things firmly in mind. And there was
much perusal of the charts of names and relationships at the end of the book
-- which, unfortunately, were not included with the audiobook, though it is
arguable that the listener needs the charts even more than a reader does!
The result was that I was soon deeply within the story and became so
impatient that I couldn't wait for opportunities to listen. I read the hardcover,
and then when I got in the car found the spot in the cds where I left off reading.
It was a great help that instead of simply numbering the tracks on the cds,
they included the first words of each section. By reading right up to a natural
break, and memorizing the first words of the next section, I was able to find the
right spot on the right cd in short order by scanning the track titles on my car
stereo's LCD screen.
My only complaints in the reading were in the area of pronunciation. Maybe
Martin made some of the weird choices himself, but the name Brienne, for
instance, cries out to be pronounced in the French manner, as bree-EN; but
John Lee pronounced it like a true Brit, as bry-EEN. But what audiobook
doesn't have its oddities of pronunciation?
I also was frustrated by the maps in the book. Apparently nobody bothered to
check the maps against the text. They simply continued to use the maps from
the previous volumes. The trouble is that most of the places people were going
to or coming from were not on the map, and there was not enough information
in the text even to guess which coast they were near, let alone the exact
location of each city.
Furthermore, the scope of the books has widened, to include lands that are not
on the maps at all. This must be remedied with the next volume, and in the
paperback of this one.
Such quibbles aside, however, this is the largest literary undertaking I've ever
loved to read. Even the sprawl of it is delicious, the sense that the world is
even bigger than the portions of it we actually see. And as each adventure,
contest, relationship, discovery, and disillusionment is brought through all of
Martin's twists and turns, we are endlessly surprised and moved and thrilled
The language is rough, the actions sometimes brutal. This is not for the
squeamish or the fastidious. But it is one of the Great Works of fiction; and
long as it is, it moves forward at a headlong pace, so it is never, never boring.
For those inclined to give it a try, start with A Game of Thrones, proceed to A
Clash of Kings, then A Storm of Swords, and finally -- so far -- A Feast for
We acquired a whole slew of BBC miniseries adaptations of works by Charles
Dickens. We most recently saw the 1999 David Copperfield, with Simon
Curtis as director.
One of the many fine films produced in conjunction with WGBH Boston and
distributed by PBS on Masterpiece Theatre, this had the lush production
values we've come to expect.
It also has Daniel Radcliffe, best known as Harry Potter, in the role of young
David. Radcliffe shows himself to be a superb child actor; indeed, it's quite a
disappointment when the adult actor, Ciaran McMenamin, takes over, because
he simply doesn't have the likeability of young Radcliffe, or the talent to hold
his own with the extraordinarily strong cast, which includes scene-stealers like
Maggie Smith (Betsey Trotwood), Bob Hoskins (Micawber), and Ian McKellen
(Creakle), along with glorious small roles played by lesser-known but equally
talented actors like Michael Elphick as Barkis, Imelda Staunton as Mrs.
Micawber, Pauline Quirke as Peggoty, and Nicholas Lyndhurst as a perhaps-over-oily Uriah Heep. (Colin Farrell was cast as a milkman -- but his scenes
were all deleted.)
We plan to work our way through all the Dickens classics they've produced so
far. These miniseries have enough room to include most of the storylines, with
time to develop mood, relationships, and transformations, while giving a strong
sense of the world surrounding the characters.
When you see these films, you can understand why Charles Dickens was rock-star famous in his time. What's easy to forget is that to his audience, they
weren't historical fiction, they were contemporary. These were all people they
might expect to meet as they walked the streets and roads of England.
For the past two weeks, I've reviewed books by Megan Whalen Turner. I read
them in a weird order -- the second book in the series first (Queen of Attolia),
then the third one (King of Attolia). Now I finally got to read the first book, The
Thief, which was a Newbery Honor Book in 1997. It's quite different from the
latter two, and not just because it's told in first person.
It's a smaller book. The intricate politics of the sequels is there, but it is
concealed behind the adventure; and I suspect that if I had not already known
the things I learned from the sequels, I would have been annoyed at how much
key information, fully known to the narrator from the start, was withheld from
But ... not to worry. It's a wonderful book, and I'm looking forward to reading
more by her.
I can't believe I didn't get around to reading James Lee Burke's Crusader's
Cross until now. It came out last summer, the latest of the Dave Robicheaux
books -- a series of mysteries set in the bayou country, the fictional New Iberia
I think perhaps one reason I put off reading new Dave Robicheaux novels is
that they're so dark. Not like Dennis Lehane, though pretty close -- but it's a
bleak world that Robicheaux lives in, and I know that Burke doesn't shrink
from having terrible and permanent things happen to his hero.
Still, Burke is one of the best writers alive; his characters are believable and
quirky and fascinating; his stories are filled with danger and moral ambiguity;
and his writing is clear and yet also evocative. You're rewarded for reading
every word; I don't skip to the end of a James Lee Burke novel to see how it
In this book, Robicheaux is brought back into the sheriff's office and
immediately makes his boss regret it, as he seems to be a trouble magnet. An
old regret from his and his brother's past -- a prostitute that his brother tried
to rescue from the life -- is resurfacing at the same time that this part of
Louisiana is shuddering from the attacks of a serial killer who brutally murders
prosperous suburban women rather than the dregs of society.
Meanwhile, Robicheaux finds himself getting caught up romantically with a
nun who never actually took her vows, though that doesn't help much when a
hostile reporter uses this to destroy Robicheaux's reputation among the good
Catholics of the bayous.
It's a compelling read, though I found the sex scenes needlessly detailed. They
made love, it was good -- I don't need a manual. Or at least I don't need to get
selections from a sex manual as an interruption to good fiction.