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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 29, 2009

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


Urban Romance, Knowing, Videophones

Two movies in recent months were spawned by the HBO series Sex and the City: The movie by the same name, and the movie He's Just Not That Into You.

Both came out of the same writers' room; both reflect the changed morality of our times. It is assumed in both films that people are going to sleep together, without commitment and, quite often, without love.

The possibility that it is somehow better not to have sex before marriage doesn't come up, and if it did it would seem quaint.

Yet both movies still revolve around some of the old values: sexual fidelity, promise-keeping, honesty, loyalty. Both movies still expect men to become husbandly at some point, and then hates them if they behave exactly the way the social mores of our time expect men to behave.

In other words, quite inadvertently both films make a powerful case for a return to the sexual rules of the 1960s, before the "revolution" -- a term that ought to be replaced by "collective madness."

It makes women very unhappy when the men they love have sex with other women, or simply refuse to make the formal commitment of marriage. Those are the facts that both films revolve around.

Yet everyone in both films keeps pretending that the sleep-with-anyone rules of modern urban America are somehow good for women.

They aren't. They never have been. These new "rules" are actually the wish-fulfilment of immature alpha males, and they destroy all the protections of women that our society had developed over the years.

And, deep down, both these movies know it and show it.

But the two films are far from identical.

He's Just Not That Into You is smart and truthful. Sex and the City is dumb and sad.

I could stop right there, but I won't.

Here's what's smart about Into You: The men are mostly trying to be good guys. And when a woman makes seemingly unreasonable demands ("He's lying to me about having quit smoking"), it turns out that one systematic deception has opened the door to many others.

In other words, a man who is a liar on one thing will readily lie about everything else. This is a lesson I tried to point out in the 1992 election, about Bill Clinton, already known to be a champion liar who, in office, did what? Lied! Constantly! About everything! (Unlike his predecessor and successor, despite the insane propaganda to the contrary.)

When someone has given his life over to deception, it becomes his primary means of dealing with the expectations of others. For a while, at least, he gets the same results from lying that he would get from keeping his word, and it's a lot less trouble.

So in Into You, along with spot-on performances by excellent actors, we get a sense of reality. The woman who has opted for seduction of a married man as her route to happiness learns that what you get through that route is the kind of man who would betray a woman's trust -- not much of a bargain, is he?

But City makes little attempt to tell the truth about anyone. Instead, it's a vehicle for letting all four stars of Sex and the City on TV have moments to emote and be funny on the big screen.

The writers also made sure to show us that despite what we might have thought, the HBO series was actually quite restrained compared to what they could have done.

The result was sad. When Kim Cantrell posed nude with sushi, I found myself thinking, How very needy. Not just the character, but the actress, as if she had something to prove. One of the producers should have said, "What are we doing to Kim? Don't we like her? Cut this humiliating moment!"

But saddest of all was Sarah Jessica Parker, though it wasn't her fault. The camera was cruel to her, as if the cinematographer had once been humiliated by her at a party and was determined to use this movie to get even.

Her character, supposedly the moral and intellectual heart of the quadrivium, is absolutely self-centered in her wedding plans (not an unusual kind of bride in the real world). Her fiancé, "Big" (Chris Noth), is no prize, either, whining his way through continual doubt about whether he ought to get married.

At the last minute, after stupidly assuming that a woman in a wedding dress would have her cellphone with her so he thinks she's refusing to take his calls, he decides not to go through with the wedding; but then he realizes that he was wrong and comes back.

By then, though, Parker has been humiliated, and so she throws it all away with a momentarily satisfying smack in Big's head with the bouquet.

Could there have been two stupider, more immature people in the world than these two characters?

So the heart of the story, the central plot, was about people so selfish and immature that they clearly deserved each other. Fifteen-year-olds are supposed to waffle and waver instead of manning up and making a commitment; it's high school when all your friends agree that a fit of pique is a good reason for ending the most important relationship of your life.

Men and women spend so much time refusing to talk to each other in this movie that you want to sit the whole cast down for serious marriage counseling.

That would have turned City into What Happens in Vegas, an enjoyable bad movie about immature, selfish people trying to make a marriage work, but that Ashton Kutcher / Cameron Diaz vehicle looks like a fount of wisdom about human nature compared to the behavior of everyone in City.

I wanted to pick up Queen Latifah's marriage counselor character from Vegas and make everybody in City submit to her ministrations. For that matter, they could have used Dennis Miller's judge character to gavel them back to sensible behavior.

Everything that's clever and edgy in City was already done better in The Sweetest Thing back in 2002.

City is full of pointless nudity, distracting to younger viewers and tedious to grownups. But since you won't be seeing this movie anyway for reasons having to do with good sense, the nudity becomes irrelevant.

Into You also has moments when they show things I didn't need to see, but generally demonstrates far more restraint -- in keeping with their far wiser approach to human behavior.

But with all these movies -- City, Into You, and Vegas -- I kept thinking: They are about the same topics as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen's stories poke fun at the mercenary marriage values of that society, but at the same time respects the rules that protect women from being exploited by men.

Almost everyone in City, Into You, and Vegas behaves exactly like the incredibly stupid characters Lydia (from Pride) or Willoughby (from Sense). When their lives collapse in misery, I kept wanting to shout at the screen: What did you expect?

Get a little self-control, kids. You're all supposed to be grownups now. That means you don't always say or do whatever pops into your head, or act upon whatever "feeling" rises to the surface of your selfish little heart.

*

Which brings me to Knowing, a movie in which astrophysicist Nicolas Cage and his son have to deal with a fifty-year-old prophecy that foretells disasters, a bunch of strange "whisperers" who are getting inside the boy's head, and personal issues with the death of wife and mother, and Cage's estrangement from his father.

The mainstream critics have generally been spiteful to this movie, faulting it for depending on too many coincidences in the plot, Nicolas Cage being an unlikely hero, and melodramatic music popping up at inappropriate moments.

By the end, all the coincidences are fully explained and make sense; Nicolas Cage is supposed to be an unlikely hero so casting him was one of the best decisions in this film.

I grant the overblown music, but it only happens now and then.

My family and I enjoyed this movie. We found ourselves caring about the family and empathizing with the situation. Knowing is far from perfect, but it's also far from bad. It makes some brave choices and deals with issues of faith and religion with balance and sense.

I wish the director had been better with children -- Chandler Canterbury, playing Caleb (the son), needed help in achieving a fully natural character, and he didn't get it. Still, by the end of the film the child actors had acquitted themselves well enough not to spoil the movie.

There were moments of astonishing dumbness, like when "determinism" and "randomness" were set up as opposites, but with weirdly wrong definitions that applied to completely different terms. It's as if the writers assumed that "determinism" meant that some determiner is calling the shots in the universe, that having a cause for every event means that those events have meaning.

(Determinism, as a philosophy, is a belief in a completely mechanical universe, without volition except as an illusion; rather the opposite of how Cage defines it.)

Meanwhile, "randomness" is used very loosely: the idea that stuff "just happens" and doesn't mean anything. In fact, this is merely a subset of philosophical determinism.

But I won't bore you with a lecture about Purposive vs. Mechanical Causation, because in the long run I don't personally agree with a single one of the philosophies of causality presented in the film, so it hardly matters to me that the writers didn't understand any of them and mixed them all up.

Nor are the religious elements particularly satisfying to me, because I don't believe in a God who behaves in the precise way that God acts in this film.

What I appreciate is that this film affirms faith in God at all, and yet the religious elements are not so intrusive (except in the very last frames of the movie) as to undercut the fundamentally science-fictional causality that the plot really depends on.

It is dangerous in the extreme to mix sci-fi with religious faith, precisely because the premise of science fiction is, necessarily, that only the rules of science need apply, and the rules of science abjure any kind of deus ex machina, intelligent design advocates to the contrary notwithstanding.

Knowing, however, brought off the balance between the two as well as I've seen it done. It's not a story I would ever have written, but it's one that I'm glad I saw.

*

It's not often that I'm impressed by demonstrations of future technology, if only because most "future techs" are quite absurd. After all, when I was a kid we were treated to visions of visiphones and personal helicopters and jetpacks and living in space stations or under giant weather domes.

All of them were known to be technologically possible even in 1950; none of them has become widespread because there are huge practical problems that cannot be overcome.

But a friend sent me a link to a demonstration at TED.com, in which Pattie Maes from MIT showed off the work of her gifted student Pranav Mistry. What she talked about was a mechanism to create a "sixth sense," but in practical terms they were presenting a way to carry computer technology with you wherever you go, "without requiring that the user change any of his behavior."

I'm not going to tell you any more, because you should let the demonstration unfold in front of you. Right now the public infrastructure doesn't exist to support many of the things they demonstrate, but when televisions were first produced there weren't any stations broadcasting anything, either, and when cars first appeared there were no gas stations. The infrastructure will come if there's a demand for the technology.

So watch the demonstration and see for yourself if you want to be able to do these things.

*

OK, one of the future technologies from my childhood has come to pass, and I own one.

I remember seeing a model of a visiphone in grade school -- a telephone that includes a small TV image of the person you're talking to.

People sitting at computers have been able to incorporate webcams with web-based telephoning for several years now, but ACN has now made it a separate appliance ... and it works. (ACN, you might remember, was the company at whose sales meeting the Celebrity Apprentice teams competed a couple of weeks ago.)

The IRIS3000 Videophone can only communicate with other videophones made by ACN, so buying just one is rather pointless.

We live in a country where people live far from each other and grandparents only get to see their grandchildren at widely separated intervals.

And since grandparents often (but of course not always) have more disposable money than their young married children, I suspect that a huge percentage of sales of ACN's videophones come from grandparents, who buy units (and pay for the service) for their kids's homes as well as their own.

After receiving glowing recommendations from fellow grandparents -- including one so enthusiastic he sent us one of his own videophones as a demonstration model -- we got units installed in our house and the house where our grandkids live -- at the opposite end of the known universe, Seattle.

The units are, as advertised, simple to set up, as long as you have a broadband internet connection. You dial them like a phone and the other person's unit rings, just like normal. Only there's a picture.

It's no better and no worse than a webcam image, which means that it's often grainy or fuzzy, and it can't deal with quick motions.

But we could see our grandkids (and their parents -- we were glad to see them, too!) and the tykes could see us geezers, too. After the first call, the three-year-old remembered it and got her mom to initiate a second call, in which the little one mostly asked Grandma, "Can you do this?" -- whereupon she would make a repulsive face.

Grandma, having proven that she could do any ugly face the darling child thought up, pronounced the phone a success.

At the same time, there are problems -- worse ones than the grainy image.

For one thing, we are now used to much greater mobility -- this is like the old days of landlines tethered to the wall.

For another thing, who wants to have to get cleaned up and look presentable in order to answer the phone? One of the great virtues of the telephone is that the other person can't see you.

And you can't be busy doing something else while talking. You have to pay attention. Which is a good thing if you have some serious topic to discuss, and a complete bummer if you like to play videogames while talking on the phone.

Still, now that it's in the house I suspect that we'll continue to use it, and perhaps use it more and more.

It's fun to talk on the phone and see people that you love and don't see as often as you like. At the same time, it's a little bit awkward, because we're not used to doing it. It's like the old days when they first put those phones on airplanes, and almost every conversation consisted of, "You'll never guess where I'm calling from."

But the jury's still out. After the novelty wears out, it may become just another novelty appliance, like all those VIC computers or Atari game consoles that had their day and then ended up on a high shelf in the closet until they had gathered the critical amount of dust and vanished entirely, like goldfish down the toilet.

I'm an optimist. I think we'll start making appointments to talk to the grandkids, and it will work because both we and their parents want us to be part of the little kids' lives, and plane trips between North Carolina and Washington state are much more expensive and time-consuming.

It's all about motivation. The videophone itself won't transform anything or anybody -- only you can make the transformation of your relationship with far-away people. The phone is only a tool. But it's a pretty darn good one, and it works exactly as advertised.


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