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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 18, 2009

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


Letter to Nigel; Nano; Swiss Family

Dear Nigel Lythgoe,

As executive producer and guiding spirit of one of our favorite shows, So You Think You Can Dance, you have shown a commitment to bringing dance at its best to the American audience.

So I hope you will care -- and do something about -- the problems with the live touring show that amount to something between fraud and an assault on the audience.

My wife and teenage daughter and I went to the 2009 season live show in Charlotte last Monday. We were delighted that the audience was much more serious than pop music concert audiences. Everyone remained seated during all performances, so we could actually see.

That is, we could see whenever the lights weren't shining from behind the dancers directly into our eyes. Which was only about half the time.

Apparently you are using a lighting designer who has only worked with musicians. Since musicians pretty much stand there and perform, I suppose it's considered necessary for the lights to put on a dazzling visual show.

But dancers are the visual performance, and the point of coming to the show is to see them dance. This is literally impossible when dazzling spotlights are shining straight forward from behind them or directly above them.

Real dance concerts do everything they can to remove all visual distractions from the dancers. Plain black curtains are always the best choice, unless the dancers are dressed in black, in which case off-white curtains do the job. But in all cases, the dancers should be 100 percent of the visual experience.

When watching a paso doble, we don't need to have a huge background of dazzling flames -- the dancers provide the metaphorical flame. And never, never is there an excuse for shining lights into the eyes of the audience.

It is the visual equivalent of going to a music concert and seating each person next to a jackhammer. It destroys the whole purpose of coming to the show.

I'm sure there's some panicky producer who simply doesn't trust dance to be entertaining in itself. I can hear him saying, "Just two people moving around the stage? No, no, we need something more to make it entertaining!"

But this was a serious audience -- even the young people were there to watch dancers dance, and nothing else.

Then there's the hideously loud music and talking. I can understand (though I dislike) this in a pop music concert, where the fans won't stop screaming so you have to amp it up so the music can be heard at all.

But the dance audience was quiet, respectful. The music and talk could have been at one-quarter the volume and we all would have heard it.

Instead, the amps were far beyond the capacity of the speakers. For instance, in the pas de deux from Romeo and Juliet, the volume was so high that distortion made it almost unbearable to listen to what should have been -- what was recorded as -- a beautiful piece of music.

And, just in case the lights and sound hadn't been awful, you apparently hired somebody's untalented nephew to write the revoltingly stupid dialogue that the dancers were forced to say between numbers. Only the running gag about Russian dance was funny -- sometimes. The rest of the dialogue was a hopeless waste of time.

Cutting out the dialogue would have saved twenty minutes. Six of those minutes could have been spent letting each of the dancers do a solo of one minute instead of the thirty seconds they were given. It would give them time to accomplish real choreography. (And we know you can do it, since Philip was given a full minute.)

The dancers you nurtured performed well. The choreography (except for the shoddy opening and closing numbers) was brilliant. But the lights and sound destroyed the show. I felt cheated; I felt assaulted. I spent half the show trying to shield my eyes from the dazzling lights pointed straight at me all around the dancers. I had to wear earplugs even to bear the music. The dialogue was humiliating to everyone who said it and heard it.

What a sad aftermath to one of the finest art shows ever broadcast.

Please, Mr. Lythgoe, take a long hard look at the touring show, fire the people who don't understand that it's not a rock concert, and get light and sound designers who have respect for the dancers, the choreographers, and the audience.

*

When Apple first came out with the iPod, I was disgusted. You'd think it was Barack Obama, the way everybody fawned over its "brilliant" design, even though it wasn't as good a product as MP3 players I was already using.

But gradually, Apple has improved their MP3 product line. I use the gen2 iPod Shuffle whenever I exercise, clipping it to my clothing (though it's worth pointing out that Panasonic's tiniest e-Wear was about the same size, clipped to my clothes, and had a small LCD screen, ten years ago and long before the Shuffle).

I bought an iPod Nano a few years ago, solely to hold the Christmas music that we play on outdoor speakers on our front porch and over the garage door during the holidays. It did the job adequately, though it was annoying that the slightest touch to the surface will change the volume, and there's no way to actually turn the thing off.

The point is ... I had a Nano in the house, barely used.

Meanwhile, because Amazon's Kindle had audiobook capabilities, I had started using it to listen to audiobooks downloaded from Audible.com. When I plugged it into the auxiliary jack in my car tuner, it played over the car speakers. I never had to swap disks, which was nice.

However, I also had to remember to shut it off separately whenever I stopped the car -- or it would keep on playing and I'd have no idea what was going on when I got back to the car.

And if I reached my destination before the book was finished, I would have to carry the Kindle around with me, attached to earphones, until the book was done.

For a book, the Kindle is easy to carry. You can fit it anywhere you can fit a book. But for an MP3 player, the Kindle is huge. You can't take it on a run or even onto a treadmill. You can't fit it in your pocket. You have to hold it.

Fortunately, however, Audible.com, which is owned by Amazon, allows Apple's iTunes software to handle its audiobooks, which means you can painlessly download it onto the Shuffle or the Nano.

So before a recent car trip, instead of loading the books I wanted to listen to onto the Kindle, I transferred them to the Nano. I plugged it into the auxiliary jack in the car, but now instead of putting it on the passenger seat as I had to do with the Kindle, I could pop the Nano into just about any available space on the dashboard or console.

And when I got to the end of my trip, I unplugged the Nano from the car, plugged in a set of earphones, dropped the Nano into my shirt pocket, and I could continue listening as I walked around.

It was easy to reach into my pocket and pause the recording when I needed to converse with someone. And with the Nano (and unlike the Shuffle) I could keep track of just how far along I was in the book I was listening to.

When you're listening to audiobooks on the Nano, there's one feature that is absolutely brilliant, which I've seen nowhere else: You can speed up or slow down the reading of an audiobook without changing the pitch.

You have to drill down through a few menu levels, but this can be a lifesaver. With audiobooks, readers often start out at a maddeningly slow pace. They ... read ... word ... by ... word until you want to scream.

Usually, after a few pages they return to a normal pace -- perhaps a bit plodding, but bearable. But it's hard to stay sane till they get there.

So with the Nano's speed-up feature, you can get the reader up to a rational pace during that early going. Then, when they speed up, you can reset the Nano to regular speed without losing your place in the book.

I can imagine that if you have hearing problems, the slowdown feature would also be a help, especially when the reader is a little quick (or when you're listening to a book in a foreign language).

I still love my Kindle -- as a reader. As a listener, I'm a convert to the Nano. It's nice when an Apple product actually, occasionally, lives up to the hype.

*

So ... what were the books I was listening to?

Audible.com recently ran a promotion in which they offered a whole slew of classic audiobook recordings for about ten bucks each. Considering that the normal price for some of them was up to eighty bucks, and most were around twenty-five, that was a real savings, so I ordered a lot of them.

Too many of them, in fact. I put nearly twenty titles in my online "shopping cart" and then discovered that the software simply couldn't handle that many at once.

It took Audible's software so long to display all eighteen titles, that their server timed me out so that I was, in effect, disconnected from the shopping cart.

Needless to say, if you can never get to the screen where you pay, you can't buy and download the books.

Not only that, I couldn't even remove the items from my cart, because I could never get to the screen where that was possible, either!

Fortunately, Audible is responsive to emails and a helpful person at the company emptied my shopping cart for me so I could come back and buy the books I wanted about five at a time.

Half the titles I bought were classics by authors that I had never gotten around to reading -- not even as a graduate student in English lit. Trollope, Butler, Carlyle, Ovid, Bunyan, and several others are waiting for me to dip into their work for the first time.

The other half, though, were either old favorites that I hadn't read in a long time, never-read works by favorite authors, or books that movies had been based on.

I started with Swiss Family Robinson, by Swiss pastor Johann David Wyss. I had read this soon after the Disney movie came out in 1960, and I liked the book much better than the movie.

But hearing it read to me as an adult, I realized that it was a very different book from the one I remembered.

Especially in the early going, the father is constantly delivering little sermons and life lessons. Now, I'm a great believer in the role of fathers as teachers -- but it seemed as though this guy was all-knowing, never made a mistake, and had no relationship with his children except fault-finding and lesson-teaching.

But then I remembered when the book was published: 1812.

That's pre-Victorian. It was written in a time when the role of the family-involved middle-class father was being invented. The miracle was not that the father took a lofty, superior position -- the miracle was that he noticed his children at all, that he cared about their education and character, and that he loved them.

Wyss intended this book for his own children, to train them in what a father should be, and I realized: There are millions of children in the world today who are raised without a father at all. A preachy one like this guy would be a vast improvement over absent or unknown or uninvolved fathers. It wouldn't hurt us a bit to learn something of fatherhood from the pre-Victorians.

The real problem was the patronizing attitude toward the wife -- but again, the book was a product of its time. She certainly knows how to get her way much of the time, and in her own sphere (as the book clearly delineates) she reigns supreme. But when it comes to taking the sons out on manly expeditions, her worries and fears are overruled quite cavalierly. It is not a marriage of equals.

However, in its own time it actually elevates the position of the wife, allowing her to keep her dignity and showing the husband taking her concerns and desires very seriously.

The gender-role issues are only secondary, however -- it is only as an adult in the post-feminist era that these matters stood out to me. Certainly I didn't notice them as a nine-year-old in 1960.

Most of the book is actually a science book -- of the kind that was possible in that pre-Darwinian era. Remember that sub-Saharan Africa was still terra incognita then -- the era of European exploration and colonization of Africa was still two or three generations ahead.

So by being stranded somewhere along the African coast (or on an island -- it is never made clear, and the array of flora and fauna include animals far too large to survive on an island), the Robinson family are given ample occasion to explore and interact with wildlife and discover new plants.

Modern readers might be disturbed by the family's assumption that whatever couldn't be tamed should be shot. This did not surprise or bother me in 1960; today, however, in the post-PETA world (though, alas, PETA doesn't know the rest of us are post-PETA), this family seems to be a walking bloodbath.

Again, though, we must remember the times. This was before the destruction of the American bison herds, before the extinction of the passenger pigeon. We had not yet seen the destructive potential of modern firepower against animal life.

In fact, though the family is astonishingly accurate in their shooting, this was still the era of muzzle-loading muskets. The animals still had a fighting chance. And to human castaways setting up habitations on the African shore, being willing to kill animal intruders was essential to their survival.

The next surprise was that Wyss apparently believed that if you trained it properly, almost any animal could be domesticated. Certainly the family has the most varied herd of riding animals ever assembled.

But I must point out how effective this book is as a science lesson. There is so much adventure that I was never bored with it -- not the first time, and not this time. But the adventures are almost entirely involved with exploring and discovering and interacting with animals and plants.

Listening to it now as an adult, I realized how many of my conceptions about various animals came from this book. I absorbed the lessons painlessly, but I nevertheless found that, time after time, my mental information about so many different things came from here -- from images my imagination produced when I first read Swiss Family Robinson.

Another strong lesson in the book is that European man brings civilization with him. Papa Robinson is the ideal man of his time -- incredibly well-read, with an encyclopedic memory of husbandry, biology, and engineering.

Whatever his family needs, he sets out to build from materials at hand. Whatever problem arises, he devises a solution.

Sometimes the solution is a brutal one, as when they twice slaughter troops of monkeys that have devastated their unoccupied residences in remote farming areas -- but, even though they still regard their action as necessary, they regret it and are sickened or saddened by the consequences. The family takes no delight in killing.

One sidelight: It seems plain to me that Edgar Rice Burroughs, when writing Tarzan of the Apes, was also relying upon information he had learned from Swiss Family Robinson. For in one incident late in the book, a tiger comes upon one of the sons and he barely escapes with his life.

Tigers are not African animals, of course. But Tarzan has a tiger in it. Burroughs and others defended his choice by declaring that there were big cats in Africa that were locally referred to as "tigers," but I think it simply comes down to Wyss's mistake.

Certainly his tiger is a tiger -- larger and more dangerous than the lions that they had earlier encountered. There are no cats in Africa larger and more likely to attack men than the lion. In 1812, Wyss's mistake is understandable; in the 1920s, Burroughs's mistake is also understandable if we accept that most people's conception of African fauna came from Swiss Family Robinson.

My memory of the Disney movie only distorted my reading of this book in one way: I kept waiting for the Malay pirates to appear. The book mentions pirates and has the family prepare to fight them off if such an enemy should attack. But they never do show up.

Disney's screenwriter, Lowell S. Hawley (Babes in Toyland; The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band), naturally took their worry about pirates and made it into a rather thrilling climax to the film. It was a good choice, since the book simply ... ends.

Or does it? The real surprise to the modern reader is that these castaways don't all want to go home! When they are finally found by a British ship after ten years, only two of the sons choose to leave, and the parents and other two sons remain in their African home.

And why not? They had made it into an estate -- by European standards, they owned and farmed a rather enormous property, with several homes, a virtual fortress, plenty of good transportation, and a varied and ample diet.

Their lives were constant work -- but that was the Protestant ideal in that time, and they had leisure enough, though they generally put it to productive use.

In one way, Swiss Family Robinson is a journey back in time; it reveals the culture of the writer, who was, after all, creating his story primarily so he could teach the ideals and learning of civilized man to his children.

In another way, though, Swiss Family Robinson might be regarded as the first true science fiction novel. Because Africa was so completely unknown and unexplored to Europeans in 1812, the story of the Competent Man could be set on an uninhabited coast and be completely believable.

By the time John W. Campbell (with writers like Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke) created modern science fiction -- the literature of the Competent Man -- Africa was thoroughly explored and dominated. It was only in space that tales like Swiss Family Robinson could still be told.

Which is why those looking for more novels in the vein of Swiss Family Robinson can find them -- in books like Tunnel in the Sky and Farnham's Freehold by Heinlein, the Foundation trilogy by Asimov, Ringworld by Larry Niven, and Rocannon's World by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The story of "ordinary" people stranded in an uncivilized place, who turn their superior knowledge and skills to building a civilized life for themselves, is one we still love.

Unfortunately, it is far more of a fantasy today than it was with Defoe wrote Crusoe and Wyss wrote Swiss Family. In that era, even urban people still lived close enough to farming and animals that they had some idea of what a nature-based life might require.

I can picture a modern American Family Robinson dying as they searched for a place to recharge their cellphones.

Even Lost, while it did a decent job (because John Locke was along) of showing how a group of people might survive, stranded on an island, had to rely on discovering artifacts and tools of recent and ancient civilization in order to survive. Still, it was definitely an entry in this genre, though it had to deal with the survival of (mostly) Incompetent Man.

As I work through some of these old classics, I'll be back to discuss them with you. For instance, two classics dealing with the French Revolution -- The Scarlet Pimpernel and Scaramouche -- are a study in contrasts.


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