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