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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 26, 2007

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


Bourne, Doonesbury, Fox, Think Dance

The Bourne movies have gotten better with each installment, culminating in The Bourne Ultimatum.

The only four constants in the series are (1) the author of the novels, Robert Ludlum, (2) screenwriter Tony Gilroy (though he shared writing credit on the first and third), and (3 & 4) actors Matt Damon and Julia Stiles.

Damon and Stiles have been superb all along. Damon has emerged as one of the rare actors who can put fire into the eyes of a character who says little and expresses less. We like him, we trust him, we care about him -- that's a hard thing to do when you don't have many fiery scenes to work with.

Stiles played a waxen character in Mona Lisa Smile but managed to subvert the film by making us like her better than the script wanted us to; she was charming in The Prince and Me. In the Bourne movies, she is given little to do, but uses her screen time to maximum effect. She, too, manages to make her character seem alive, intelligent, and good, so that without explanation we understand her decisions and trust her competence.

Damon and Stiles were as good as this all along. Ludlum is another matter. I don't know about you, but when I tried reading Ludlum's novels after enjoying the first two movies, I found them incoherent, overwritten, and in general so unbearably bad that I gave up and left them behind me in the beach house where I made the attempt.

I know. They were huge bestsellers. Other people must have loved them.

Still, when I look at the movies and try to decide whom to credit most for their growing brilliance, I do have to look to the writer. Gilroy was able to conceal the illogic and implausibility of the underlying story, which is, after all, deeply silly.

And what emerges at the end of the last movie is a morally subtle story that forces us to face a real dilemma:

If you could, by killing just a few key people, prevent calamitous war or monstrous terrorist acts, then wouldn't decency require you to commit those murders as a morally noble act?

In such a case, though, you still have to have someone carry out the act. While it is probably true that you can kill anybody, as long as you don't care whether the killer survives, what if you want to train your assassin to be so brilliant and careful and effective that he can carry out the assassination without leaving a clue as to who did it?

Having once trained such an assassin, you'd want to be able to use him again and again -- to amortize the costs of training him so superbly.

But how do you also control him, so he doesn't decide not to kill the target you assign?

More importantly, once you have such a human weapon, how do you resist the temptation to find more and more targets that need his attention?

In other words, once you've crossed the line into political and military assassinations, how do you keep the line from moving to include more and more targets that once would have been unthinkable?

The Bourne movies have done a good job of making the people who created this weapon -- Bourne himself and the other "assets" that he is pitted against in Ultimatum -- morally ambiguous. The script does not cheat and make them monsters. You can see how decent people could walk down that road.

At the same time, this movie is the quintessential American film. There are plenty of nations and cultures in this world where blind obedience is truly expected of citizens -- if you've ever been addressed by a policeman or customs official in, say, Europe, you'll know exactly what I mean.

American authority figures usually know that they get their best results when they give orders with an explanation. It's what American citizens expect and are usually given: an explanation. It provides us a means of continuing to believe that we actually have a choice.

Even if the explanation is simply, "If I don't make you go back behind the line, sir, I'll lose my job," we usually go along with orders when they sound like requests and the reason makes sense to us.

That's what The Bourne Ultimatum comes down to: It's not that committing assassinations as an instrument of defense is inherently wrong -- most of us would agree that the world would have been a better place if Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and a few others had met a timely end, before they could slaughter millions.

No, what Bourne Ultimatum rejects is the idea of one person surrendering his volition to others. His controllers demanded that Bourne trust them too much. They insisted that he surrender his will entirely to them. And Bourne would not do it. Could not do it. He knew that "I was just following orders" is no defense. There were things he would not do.

That's what the rooftop scene comes down to: the recovery of personal will despite training.

That's why we forgive the silliness, the skipped-over impossibilities, the unanswered questions. Because we believe in the characters so deeply and care so much about the vital moral issue. Ultimately, the American character insists: I will do terrible things for the public good, but I will only do it when I know the truth and believe in the cause myself.

Such an attitude can lead us to a public stalemate on an issue like how to conduct the war on terror -- but I'd rather have that dilemma than to live in a nation of mindless order-followers.

In fact, as a people, we Americans have traditionally tended to reserve our maximum contempt for those who let leaders do their thinking for them. Though in World War II we feared the relentless Japanese obedience to the Emperor, we did not admire it. In the Nuremberg trials, we disdained the "obeying orders" defense.

We don't believe you can move your moral responsibility away from yourself and put it on other people. If you do, then you are still responsible for having made that decision, which is, by definition, unconscionable.

That's why The Bourne Ultimatum is not just a brilliantly entertaining movie, but also an important one.

*

Speaking of mindless stupidity, let me mention last Sunday's Doonesbury. The joke is that a couple of dumb or spaced-out characters are naively disconnected from those who fight America's wars.

But along the way, B.D., the character who gives the "smart" viewpoint says: "Emotionally, we outsourced this war -- to a professional class that mainstream America has almost no contact with. Most people are completely baffled why anyone would serve [in the military]."

Excuse me? This passage says nothing about "mainstream America" and everything about the isolated, ignorant, and wilfully stupid bubble that cartoonist Garry Trudeau and his ilk inhabit.

Contrary to his view, mainstream America feels a deep connection with the soldiers. Most of us know more than one person who has volunteered for military service in this time of war.

Most of us have friends and relatives who have put their lives on the line and devoted years of service to this nation's defense.

And we know that those soldiers are fighting because they know that, having begun the Iraq campaign, it's essential to defeat our enemies in Iraq in order to move ahead in the eradication of Islamic terrorism worldwide.

I get letters from soldiers all the time, and they are true believers in the cause. They are dismayed at the thought that all they have achieved might be swept away by political hacks in Congress who think they can gain power by betraying our allies and the American soldiers who have achieved vital objectives in the war on terror.

They are baffled by the stupidity of political leaders who think that if we withdraw from Iraq, the war will just "end." The soldiering class understands that the battlefield will merely shift -- from the Middle East to Europe and our own shores. Though millions would be slaughtered in the Middle East along the way.

Garry Trudeau doesn't know anything about "mainstream America." He has contempt for every aspect of what mainstream America believes in and does. So the real joke in this installment of Doonesbury is on Trudeau himself.

Trudeau is even more ignorant than the two "dumb" characters who think they can help the troops by sending them a box of medals. Because Trudeau thinks he can "help" the troops by undoing what they and their comrades have sacrificed to achieve.

*

A few months ago, I reviewed Sherwood Smith's fantasy novel Inda, the first volume of a projected trilogy, and I believe I said very positive things.

I recently read volume two, Fox, and the achievement of this writer is only getting more remarkable.

So many fantasy novels take place in a space about the size (and with as much variety) as the state of Delaware.

But in Fox, Smith opens up the novel into a wide, wide world, with enormous variety. Here we have nation within nation, layers of history, and a real sense that there are kingdoms and empires on several continents, with complex interactions among them, and wide variation in their cultures.

Every group has its own history, its own objectives, its own grievances. And Smith handles the relationships and machinations among them so deftly that you don't realize you're being given a course in politics.

The novel begins by plunging into the story about fifteen minutes after the end of the previous volume. I strongly recommend that you reread that last chapter of Inda before starting to read Fox. Otherwise, you'll be as lost as I was. As with the first volume, Smith does not define things as she goes along: You're expected either to remember or figure it out.

But the sense of dislocation is only momentary. Within a chapter or two I was fully reoriented, despite the months between volumes. And what a ride this new book is!

Though the international politics is deftly handled, what matters most is that the personal stories are believable and compelling. The close-in core of Inda's companions; the second core of characters surrounding Prince Evred; the potential rival to Inda for leadership of his anti-pirate pirate fleet, Fox; and the most mysterious character, a warrior mage named Ramis who seems able to control space and time -- all are richly created, sympathetic, and real.

Nor does Smith infinitely postpone decisive action, the way so many writers of long series do. No, when it's time for something to happen, it happens, and Smith flings out the consequences with reckless abandon. It's often quite breathtaking how daring she is.

Naming and vocabulary are, as always in this series, a challenge. Inda goes by the nom de guerre of "Elgar the Fox," perhaps intending that he be confused with his ally and rival, whose name is Fox.

After a while, titles like sierlaef and harskialdna begin to sound like natural words, and family names like Montredavan-An and personal names like Indevan-Laef Algara-Vayir become not just pronounceable, but freighted with all kinds of meaning. It's as if we enter into the culture, like immigrants who finally catch on to the language.

Sexuality in these books is a bit utopian (in a libertarian sense) and denies much of human evolution -- it's a world in which sexual activity is largely separated from mating and child-rearing, and sexual orientation is accepted no matter which way it turns.

But nothing is ever pornographic. You don't necessarily give this book to pre-adolescents, but nobody is going to learn the facts of life from it, either. As always, the best suggestion, if you have a fantasy-loving teen, is to read it yourself and then discuss the issues raised by the books in an intelligent way. It works far better than banning a book at keeping your child's moral lens clearly focused.

In the past few months I've started reading more than a dozen fantasy novels or series; I haven't reviewed them here because they were, to put it kindly, a waste of my time, and I didn't bother finishing them.

By contrast, I didn't want Fox to end. I savored every paragraph and continued to live in the book for days afterward.

I keep thinking that if I write a good enough review, the publisher or author will relent and let me read the next volume early. Like now. Please.

*

This season's So You Think You Can Dance was one of the best shows I've ever watched. Not so much because of the contest aspect of the show -- very soon after the show began, I saw that almost all the dancers were wonderfully skilled and didn't deserve to lose.

No, this was a great show because week after week, choreographers created fascinating and, sometimes, thrilling or moving dances, and the performers (mostly) did them extraordinarily well.

The finale was excruciating, because the performers did so very well that I could hardly bear to think of any of them "losing." Even the week before had felt terrible, because Lauren had made such progress in the past few weeks, and Pasha was never less than excellent, and yet I couldn't disagree when those two were cut.

The final four -- Lacey, Danny, Neil, and Sabra -- had earned their places. Each of them had begun strongly (how else to get into the top twenty on such a demanding, competitive show?), but they had also met real challenges and surpassed expectations.

Yet of the four, it was Sabra whom I had come to admire most, for the sheer brilliance of her performance. I was surprised when I was reminded that she had not started dancing till her mid-teens. So much for the idea that you have to start dancing as a little child.

(And so much for the hooey that only certain body types work for dance. This isn't basketball, folks!)

Producer/judge Nigel Lythgoe was quoted afterward as saying that "the best dancer didn't win." And that's true. For sheer technique, nobody on the show equaled Danny Tidwell, and it's arguable that Neil Haskell was also at least her equal, if not better.

But what makes a great dancer is not just technique or athleticism. And while Neil and Danny both had grace and personality, too, there was a fire in Sabra that the others didn't have. It was that famous je-ne-sais-quoi called "it" -- she had more of it. And that's a fair consideration in the judging.

Nigel knew all along that Danny was hurting in that department -- he kept mentioning it throughout the run of the show. He improved in that department -- but none of them surpassed Sabra.

When I was younger, I loved modern dance and stage dance and ballroom dance. But with the advent of Michael Jackson's crotch-grabbing dance style and the overtly sexual dancing that seemed to emerge in genre after genre, I lost interest.

The lesson of So You Think You Can Dance, for me, was that good choreographers can do good work in any genre (except krump, which was simply mannered and boring), and that good dancers can make any form or style work for them.

Of all the talent shows, none comes close to the quality of the judging on Dance. The judges are all choreographers who have put their work on the line -- and who can judge the quality of dancers better than those who have spent years of their lives working with them?

I also appreciated the fact that none of the judges were scoring points by abusing the performers. They were all candid and realistic (except Debbie Allen, who couldn't shake off her sweeter-than-life attitude), and their comments were specific enough that the dancers could actually learn from them.

But they were also respectful and kind. Suffice it to say that there are no judges on American Idol who combine respect, kindness, candor, and helpfulness the way all the regular judges on Dance do.

The finale, in which the winner was announced, was a splendid recap of the whole season, as favorite numbers were repeated and we got a taste of what the touring company will look like.

When you contrast So You Think You Can Dance, from auditions on to the end, with American Idol, produced by the same team, you can't help but realize that Dance is the one with class.

Part of that is because dance talent is more measurable. Either you can do the moves or you can't; but with singing, truly awful voices can be successful with the public, and the real game is trying to outguess the public taste.

Someone who dances like Tom Waits sings would not have a dancing career; but Tom Waits is truly wonderful. Singing is simply too amorphous to judge it with the kind of accuracy that is possible with dance.

But that does not explain the American Idol obsession with grotesquerie, the parade of freaks and human tragedies that opens each season. Just because more talentless people can make the pathetic mistake of fantasizing they can sing doesn't mean that it makes the show or the audience better for watching their self-destruction on tape.

I fear that next season, I'll spend most of Idol wishing that it were as good a show as Dance.


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