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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 24, 2006

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


Cinnamon Colgate, Flyboys, Toothbrushes, Fairest

I don't like minty-gel toothpastes -- just a personal preference -- so I've stuck with Colgate's traditional flavor for longer than most Americans have been alive. But even I have to try something new, once in a while, and when Colgate came out with a cinnamon-flavored gel that also promised I would become luminous (or at least my teeth would), I bought a tube and just yesterday started using it.

What can I say? It tastes like cinnamon, only not spicy, and my teeth seem as clean as ever. I like it. It's an extremely red tube and I can find it in the dark. Also, when I smile in the middle of the night, my teeth are so bright I can read.

*

Flyboys is not only better than I expected -- it's very good.

I think I can safely say that there has never been a really good World War I flying movie. Good movies with World War I-era planes in them, maybe -- but movies in which the flying really worked? Not till now.

The reason is simple enough. Any real film from that era was in the old jerky style with too few frames per second. It was also grainy and black-and-white. For a long time after that, World War I flying movies had to use models, which simply can't duplicate the swoop and soar of those complicated, tight aerodynamics, and don't look real anyway because the tiny little plastic pilots can't wave their arms or move their heads. Or they could use real planes, which are expensive, dangerous to fly, and rare.

The technology is finally here. Computer graphics are able to simulate, as realistically as I need, the bee-swarm effect of dogfights in the air over the trenches. And CGI has finally reached the point where they can put the faces of the actors into the shots realistically enough that (a) you can usually recognize them and (b) they look like they're actually alive and in the scene.

With the technical problems more or less mastered (the graphics can get better but they're good enough now), all they needed was a story. And at first that didn't look promising.

The point was to show us the story of the Lafayette Escadrille, those American volunteers who joined the air wing of the French army in order to help fight the Germans prior to the United States' entry into the war. These were real men who put their lives on the line and died in horrifying numbers because they were either committed to the cause or so eager to fly airplanes that they'd even do it with people shooting at them.

I remember reading a novel about the Lafayette Escadrille by Nordhoff and Hall (the authors of the unforgettable Bounty trilogy) and feeling both saddened and ennobled by these young men's exploits. In an era without reliable parachutes, where the planes were made of wood and canvas, and it made sense to carry a little hammer to bang on the machine gun if it jammed, these men trusted their lives to two dangerously immature technologies: flying and automatic weapons.

When the enemy could come from above, behind, or below you, or dive on you out of the sun, it required new levels of alertness. You had to think about what the enemy was doing while also keeping your aircraft from stalling or spinning or taking a dive you couldn't pull out of. Every part of your plane was flammable. There was nothing to shield you from bullets passing through the body of the plane.

The trouble with telling a story about this sort of thing is, it's one thing to do a documentary in which you say, Look how dangerous this was, and quite another to make us care about individuals who are crazy enough to attempt it. And since the death rate was quite high, you have to help us get to know a lot of characters before a lot of them die.

The trouble is, movies don't have time to let us get to know a lot of characters -- especially expendable characters who are there only to get killed. It's the red-shirt-guy problem from Star Trek. You knew the series regulars couldn't get killed, because the actors had contracts. So whenever a guy you hadn't seen before went with the lead actors, you knew he was there to get killed in some gruesome fashion.

The alternative is to try to do what movies don't do well: let us get to know lots of characters very quickly so we care about them all. That's what Flyboys attempted, and they immediately ran into a brick wall. The introductions to the initial group of American volunteers, showing why each went off to war, seemed perfunctory, stereotypical, and uninteresting.

It's also realistic. People volunteer for wars they don't have to fight for only a certain number of reasons -- they're trying to get away from something, they have a sense of honor and tradition, they really believe in the cause, they like to kill people, or somebody's making them do it. (There weren't any characters in the "like to kill people" category, except, of course, the archvillain on the German side, but he was balanced by a chivalrous German.)

The result of the stereotyping is that at the opening you've got the fat rich guy whose father has pressured him into upholding the family honor, the firm-jawed man whose family has a proud military tradition that he's happily upholding, the black American who went to France to escape prejudice in America and is now fighting for his adopted country, the criminal running away from punishment. And, at first, that's all you've got.

So I sat there in the theater thinking, I sure hope the flying sequences are good, because the story is dull dull dull.

Well, the flying sequences were good. And after that initial twenty minutes, the storytelling becomes good, too. The stereotypes start to become individuals. The actors win us over. The film is generous to all of them -- nobody is vile, everybody is learning and growing. Even the love story is charming, fresh, and -- thank heaven -- in keeping with the moral standards of the day.

The main character is Blaine Rawlings, played by James Franco -- you know, the guy who played Harry Osborn, the conflicted best-friend-turned-arch-enemy in the Spider-Man movies. At first I kept thinking, This guy has watched James Dean's movies way too many times, and practiced the squint in front of the mirror. But after a very short while, I realized that he can also act. He's able to bring off the tough-yet-innocent, noble-yet-humble character that Gary Cooper did so well, and I hope Franco has a Gary Cooper kind of career.

Jean Reno is marvelous as the French commander of the squadron, David Ellison is touchingly sweet as Eddie Beagle, and Christien Anholt is haunting in the role of Higgins, the legendary ace. And Jennifer Decker as Lucienne, the French girl that Rawlings falls in love with, is magnificently real, so that you believe she really is a simple farm girl and yet you can also see why an American cowboy would fall in love with her.

There are many other actors playing parts that are almost vanishingly small, yet they act their well-written parts so effectively that we feel their struggles, their accomplishments, and in many cases their deaths as if we knew them.

My twelve-year-old saw the movie with me, and Flyboys accomplished one of the important purposes of a war movie: Without having to deal with the terrible details of war, she was able to experience the cruel randomness of death in battle, the fact that almost no one who dies deserves to, and every death or crippling injury cuts off or deforms a life that ought to have been lived. Few war movies actually achieve that; that's why this is one of the really good ones.

In the parking lot, total strangers started talking to me about the film. Even the day after seeing it, my family and I were still talking about it. The feeling lingers. The ending is strong and truthful and right. The experience moves between the exhilaration of early flight, the ache of young and impossible friendship and love, and the terrible tension of war. I'm glad this film was made, and glad also that I saw it in the theater.

*

I hate running out of things, and so I tend to stock up. For instance, I now order my Job Squad paper towels over the Internet from the Piggly-Wiggly grocery store online site, two cases at a time. That's a lot of paper towels. You have to store them somewhere. You also have to remember, when you run out of towels in the pantry, to go look in the place where you're storing the cases instead of ordering another couple of cases and then having four.

I think this is becoming about how your memory starts to fail after you reach fifty-five. Back to my real topic.

I also store a few extra toothbrushes. In fact, it's not just me: My wife also stores toothbrushes in their original packaging for the baskets we leave out for overnight guests who might have forgotten something. But we keep our hoards separate, mostly because as soon as Reach brand toothbrushes came on the market, I became a loyal customer -- the only one in my family.

For me, that original brush was wonderful -- it gave me leverage so I could brush really well the teeth in the back of my mouth. Also, when you set it down on a counter, the head was up in the air, so it could dry out instead of sitting in a pool of microbe-laden water.

So I stocked up. Then they redesigned the toothbrush, and the new ones were a little bulkier, sturdier, with more bristles. Better! I stocked up on those, too.

It's been several generations of toothbrush design, only now, because I have braces, I'm going through toothbrushes a lot faster. The bristles snag on the hardware and bend and pretty soon it looks more like a bottle brush than a toothbrush.

But that was fine -- I stocked up, remember? So when a toothbrush gets too snaggly, I toss it and grab one from my hoard.

Last week I picked up one of the old narrow cardboard containers with the original Reach toothbrush design in it. It was so thin. So lightweight. The head was so small. It almost looked like a Barbie toothbrush. It felt flimsy in my hand. I felt like I had to brush twice as long to get the same effect, and even then, I didn't really feel as though my teeth and gums had been brushed.

And I realized: Every now and then, when they come out with a "new and improved" version, it really is an improvement.

It's kind of reassuring, isn't it? I mean, when Yoplait "improved" their drinkable yogurts, they turned it into sugary candy and I stopped buying it. Remember how they "improved" Coca-Cola with "New Coke" (i.e., imitation Pepsi), which they don't even bother to make anymore?

But with toothbrushes? When they improved them, they weren't kidding. The packaging is better (much easier to peel open those plastic cases), they feel sturdy in your hand, the heads are big enough to give full coverage of teeth and gums, and -- because I'm still loyal to Reach -- they still have that great leverage for serious, but non-electric, power brushing.

Of course, we do pay a price. All the brands are so thick that older toothbrush holders -- the kind with holes for the individual brushes -- don't work anymore. You can't get those fat handles down into the holes. It necessitated our changing all the holders in the house. But the improvement in the brushes was worth it.

Speaking of toothbrush holders: Some people don't even use them -- they just lay their brushes down beside the sink or on a medicine cabinet shelf, probably on the theory that if the brush is still wet when you pick it up, the only microbes on it probably came from your mouth anyway. The fluoride in the toothpaste will kill them once they go back into your mouth anyway, right?

Some people just use a water glass, and stick the toothbrushes in it, handle downward, so the bristles can dry. It works. But your toothbrush bumps into other people's toothbrushes. People who sometimes brush their teeth after using the toilet and don't wash their hands first. People that you love (after all, you live in the same house, right?) but whose personal cleanliness habits are appalling. But you'll let their nasty toothbrush bump up against yours anyway, right?

Some people are insanely fastidious, and have to have toothbrush holders with an individual hole for each toothbrush. The trouble is, most of these are either (1) old designs with holes too small for modern brushes, or (2) closed containers, so the holes for the toothbrushes are the only openings. That means that you can't ever get inside the cup and wash it. You could soak it in lysol or ammonia, probably, and make sure it was sanitary. But it wouldn't get rid of the gunk.

And there is gunk. I don't care how fastidious you are. A little bit of toothpaste always lingers in the bristles along with the water. When you stand the toothbrush up in the holder after using is, that water runs down the handle, carrying dissolved toothpaste with it -- along with any tiny fragments of chewed food that might remain in that watery mix.

Where your toothbrush handle rests on the bottom of the holder (or drips down like a stalactite onto the bathroom counter), you start to get a buildup of suspiciously grey-looking gunk. Your toothpaste wasn't grey. (At least I don't think there are any brands with a dingy grey color -- "Use Ash brand toothpaste! Cover that yellow with grey!") Your food wasn't grey. The inside of your mouth isn't grey. So something has gotten there and turned grey.

I like to have that gunk out in the open where I can see it -- and wash it off at least once a week.

It also allows me to feel superior that my toothbrush leaves the least gunk behind, thereby proving that I do a much better job of cleaning my toothbrush after each use. I don't ever brag about this openly (until now) -- it's just one of the few quiet triumphs that let me make it to the end of each miserable day.

Anyway, our toothbrush holder is the open-air model. It has a curved metal bar with four openings for toothbrushes. The bar is supported by a single post, and the ends of the toothbrush handles rest on a porcelain disc with shallow depressions to keep them from sliding away. It's visually attractive and spectacularly easy to use and to clean. In other words, it allows us to cope with our own private insanities.

There is another solution to the toothbrush-holder situation, by the way. When my wife and I were first married, we had some friends who lived near us in Salt Lake City who, in the course of a conversation, revealed the unwelcome information that they weren't very particular about toothbrushes -- their whole family owned only one at a time.

They brushed often, mind you. They just "didn't mind sharing."

Now, I grew up with the "family water glass" which we all drank from except when one of us was sick (though of course you don't find out you're sick until after at least a day of being contagious). Now my wife and I are great believers in little teeny paper cups for everything -- use it and lose it, that's our philosophy. But I did have experience with the shared waterglass, and I guess sharing a toothbrush isn't completely different from that, but ...

Excuse me while I shudder yet again over the very thought of sharing a toothbrush.

Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that we knew these otherwise charming, civilized, bright-toothed people in Salt Lake City. A lot of rumors keep going around about weird things that Mormons do, and I'd hate to think my column started the rumor that Mormons share toothbrushes. Thought these friends of ours were, to be accurate, Mormons.

Admittedly, more than a hundred years ago some of our Mormon ancestors practiced polygamy, which shows that we have a cultural predisposition toward unsanitary activities. But even we had to draw the line somewhere, and I promise you, sharing toothbrushes, like married couples leaving the bathroom door open during use, is practiced only by small offshoot cults that have nothing to do with Mormonism as generally understood.

*

Gail Carson Levine is the author of the delightful YA fantasy novel Ella Enchanted, which was made into such a horrible movie that some audience members may have died in despair before it was over. The good news is that the movie people had nothing to do with Levine's new novel, Fairest, which is a sharply twisted version of the Snow White story, set in the same magical world as Ella Enchanted.

The bad news is ... it's not perfect.

But that's OK. Not every book has to be flawless. The problem is that the story is set in a kingdom where everybody sings all the time, and the heroine is someone who happens to have an absolutely gorgeous voice. Which is fine -- fairy-tale heroes and heroines are supposed to be the greatest this or the most powerful that.

The trouble is that Levine decided to write the songs. Not the music, just the lyrics. But song lyrics are a delicate thing, very hard to write. The words have to have a rhythm and flow to them. You have to believe they could be sung in a melodic, tuneful way. They need a particular kind of diction, depending on the purpose and meaning of the song.

Unfortunately, even when you write absolutely brilliant lyrics, they only sound good when sung to a good melody. Cole Porter, Lorenz Hart, Stephen Sondheim, Oscar Hammerstein, Ira Gershwin -- you read the lyrics of the great songwriters and almost the only ones that work when read aloud are the funny ones.

That's the way it works in Fairest. The songs that are meant to be funny usually are, or at least you can see how they would be if you were watching the characters perform them. But the songs that are supposed to be soulful or happy or haunting or sorrowful are simply ... dull. When they're not actually embarrassing.

The nice thing is that the story is quite good, with wonderful, unexpected twists and turns -- you only barely recognize the old Snow White, though Levine takes perverse pleasure in handing us our favorite bits with completely inverted meanings. And since the songs are always set off in italics, you can sort of skim them -- when you're reading silently to yourself. They rarely convey important information.

However, I think this book would be a nightmare to read aloud. Thank heaven it's not my responsibility to read it for a book on tape! Because it's one thing to read the song lyrics silently. What if you had to read them aloud?

What do you do, make up some kind of lame melody on the spur of the moment and sing it? That's great if you happen to have the greatest voice in the kingdom of Ayortha, and happen to be a soprano. But it's distracting when the song is supposed to be swooningly impressive and you only have your own ordinary voice to sing it with.

In a book, it's great to tell us that music is beautiful and powerful. But when you actually present the words that are sung, and someone has to perform them, then either you read them -- which rather denies that there was singing, doesn't it? -- or you sing them, thus making it harder to believe that the songs were really all that great.

And since the lyrics aren't that great ...

I think many parents who read this aloud will skip the songs or paraphrase them. "She sang about her feelings about her family in the inn," the reader will say, and move on with the story.

I'm spending way too much time on the negatives. If you've never read any Levine, then don't start here, please -- get Ella Enchanted. But if you already love her stories, this one will take you back to the same magical world and will give you the kind of entertainment and pathos we're used to from this wonderful YA author.


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