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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.