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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 success.

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 invented.

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 ounces.

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 to expect.

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 be disappointed.

*

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 slow.

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 and appalled.

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 Crows.

*

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 the reader.

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 parish.

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 comes out.

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.


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