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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.