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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 7, 2010

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


Oscars and Idol

Talk show hosts this week have been making the same old lame jokes about how long the Oscars ran last Sunday night. They ignore the fact that for those of us who actually enjoy the show, it's not a moment too long.

Sometimes what we love are those train-wreck moments -- in past years, things like the Spanish film director who launched into a diatribe against America; the deification of Al Gore; Michael Moore's very existence -- and sometimes we're just hoping for something wonderfully strange, like Sacheen Littlefeather showing up to reject Marlon Brando's Oscar, or the streaker who ran naked behind David Niven, or Roberto Benigni scrambling over the seats to reach the stage to accept his Oscar, or Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups and Billy Crystal joking that he fathered a crowd of young children.

But mostly we love the movies. And this year was the best Oscar ceremony in many years.

We owe it all to President Obama, of course.

No, I'm serious. For half a decade, we got so much politically correct stupidity, such vilification of the beliefs of at least half the country, that it felt, not like a celebration, but like a declaration of civil war by the effete elite against us unenlightened bigots who actually, like, shop at WalMart and have children and stay married to the same person for weeks on end.

But now that Obama is President and the Democrats control both houses of Congress, how can the geniuses of Hollywood complain about anything? Yes, there are still terrorists sequestered in Guantanamo; yes, we're still at war in Iraq and Afghanistan with the same Defense Secretary in charge; yes, the administration is still launching drone attacks to assassinate terrorist leaders; yes, some suspects are still being remanded to foreign governments for questioning using methods that might be illegal for Americans to use; yes, the economy is even farther in the toilet than it was when Obama came to office; yes, this Congress and administration are even more corrupt than usual (though corrupt Democrats are given in-school suspension for offenses that would get a Republican expelled); but doggone it, under Obama Hollywood knows that all these actions are righteous and/or necessary, instead of constituting proof that the president is insane, stupid, and/or evil incarnate.

OK, I was only half serious. The other reason why there was no politically correct cant was because somebody noticed that a lot of Americans have been tuning out in recent years, feeling -- correctly -- that Hollywood despised them and we weren't really welcome at the party. This has shown up, not just in the ratings for the Oscar show, but also at the box office.

How many of you, for instance, didn't go to see Hurt Locker because every other recent war movie from Hollywood was just another excuse to show how evil America was? (You know, like Avatar.) Look at "best" pictures like American Beauty, which showed how American suburbia was almost as morally degenerate as movie stars, or Million Dollar Baby, which showed us how noble it was for a man who didn't believe in suicide to murder a friend who did. Look how the movies we actually love are usually ignored by the Academy, which vies to nominate the most despicable movies of the year.

Well, somebody noticed that maybe, if you want to keep a business going, you should try to sell the audience something a little closer to what they actually want.

So this year they had ten best-movie nominees (the way they originally did), so that the list could include audience favorites as well as snob hits. And while the winner this year was a terrifyingly realistic (but apolitical!) military thriller that was far from being the most popular movie at the box office, I haven't heard from anybody who saw it who didn't approve of its having received the award.

Every Day's So Special!
11-17 March 2010

By Uncle Orson

Thursday, 11 March -- "Johnny Appleseed Day." John Chapman was a real man who, starting about 1800, roamed the frontier country between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, planting apple orchards ahead of the settlers, then moving on to preach Swedenborgian Christianity along with his gift of sustenance.

Friday, 12 March -- Anniversary of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first "Fireside Chat." FDR was careful to keep these direct addresses to the American people rare and important, and even people who opposed his policies tuned in to hear what he had to say. If you talk too much, people stop listening (and I should know!)

Friday is also "Middle Name Pride Day." The program is simple: Tell your middle name to three people who don't already know it (even if it's something appalling, like "Orson").

Saturday, 13 March -- Genealogy Day. In a lot of American families, this isn't about finding some ancient ancestor back in the home country. This is about looking up uncles and aunts, cousins, or even (sadly) brothers and sisters your family has lost touch with over the years.

Saturday is also "National Open an Umbrella Indoors Day." It's all about defying absurd superstitions. The organizers of this event urge you to note down whether you have any bad luck. But what's the time limit? If anything at all goes wrong within days or weeks, it can feel like proof. The real evidence would come if you wrote down every single thing that ever went wrong in your life, and then see whether there's an increase around the time you opened an umbrella indoors.

Sunday, 14 March -- Check Your Batteries Day. The idea is that if on every March 14th you check -- or change -- the batteries in your smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, and every remote control and battery-powered clock in the house, you'll never be surprised by a dead battery (or one that has leaked and corroded the entire appliance).

Monday, 15 March, is the beginning of National Wildlife Week. Connect with nature. Take a spider outdoors instead of stomping on it.

Tuesday, 16 March -- birthday of James Madison, fourth President of the United States and husband of Greensboro's own Dolley Madison.

Wednesday, 17 March -- St. Patrick's Day. I've never understood why people who are neither Irish nor Catholic pay the slightest attention to this day, while ignoring the patron saints of so many other countries. Do you even know, for instance, what the day of St. George or St. Denis might be? Or of which nations they are the patron saints?

Americans aren't stupid. We know that sometimes we go to the movies for sheer entertainment -- or to see the special effects, when we know the story is lame beyond belief, or a collection of cliches stolen from the work of much better artists (hey, Avatar -- "I see you!") -- while the great movies sometimes can only be watched once. So we don't mind when a less popular movie wins, as long as it's not a movie that hates us or ridicules us.

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin were charming hosts, and the jokes they recited were exactly as funny as they should have been. They seemed to believe that their job was to poke fun at an assemblage of the most thin-skinned people in the world -- instead of trying to shock or offend the audience that pays for the tickets that have made them rich.

The opening production number with Neil Patrick Harris was delightful (continuing the Billy Crystal tradition), and for a long time I enjoyed the lack of any other live production number. I never understood the longtime Oscar habit of putting on big live musical numbers to celebrate a Hollywood in which musicals are pretty much dead, and "live" is the opposite of what Hollywood actually does.

So I was grateful when, instead of having a live presentation of each nominated song, they simply showed a clip from the movie for which it was made, giving us an idea of how the song worked in the show.

My gratitude was premature. Because in introducing us to the best original score nominees, they ludicrously had a bunch of not-very-well-choreographed dancers flood the stage and do dances that had nothing to do with the movies or, in some cases, the music.

Why didn't anyone have the brains to simply show us clips from the movies with the score playing, but all the sound effects and dialogue removed? This is program music -- it is meant to be part of a complete effect, and was written to fit into quite specific visual moments. Why not show us the music in situ?

I'm not sure how I felt about the tributes to the nominees for best actor and actress. For the nominees in the supporting-role categories, they had given us pretty good film-clip samples of the nominated performances; but for the leading-role nominees, they had other professionals who had worked with them stand up and tell anecdotes and/or praise them.

The problem with this is that while some of them were wonderful, some of them were so lame you wondered if the person talking had ever actually met the nominee or seen any of his or her work. And very little of what was said actually had anything to do with the nominated performance.

So even though I liked about half the little eulogies, the other half included some so embarrassingly awful that this is an idea that needs to be scrapped, just to spare us the sadness we are bound to feel for the poor actor who clearly has no friends in Hollywood. (Which is, of course, most of them, until the moment they win, at which point they suddenly have a thousand best friends.)

Favorite train-wreck moment: When "Music by Prudence" won, director Roger Ross Williams was interrupted by a woman who followed him up to the stage and interrupted him, saying, "Let the woman talk."

This was, of course, a white woman interrupting a black director of a documentary about handicapped musicians in Africa. So apparently black men filming about handicapped musicians in Africa are "the oppressor" while white women are the universal victims.

When you learn the real story, her interruption becomes even more ludicrous. This woman got a producer credit because she was the "finder" -- that is, she told the people who actually funded and made the film about the group of handicapped musicians.

And then, having contributed neither talent, nor labor, nor money, she got angry because they (correctly) focused on one musician in particular (essential for telling a coherent story) instead of trying to tell, in a few minutes, the story of the whole group.

The director, who flew to Africa at his own expense to learn about the people and plan the project, stood there in the face of her incredible rudeness, looking puzzled and appalled, while she stole from him the moment of glory that he had worked for and earned (and she had not, since her version of the short was not made and therefore did not receive an Oscar).

As my wife pointed out afterward, this is a self-punishing offense. Do you think there is anyone in Hollywood or in the world of documentaries or shorts or indie films who will want to work with this woman or even listen to her pitch an idea? Visions of her angry, unfair, rude, and deceptive interruption of the Oscar speech will be bound to surface. If she were working the counter at Subway and you were starving, wouldn't you walk out rather than be served by someone as obnoxious as she?

This year I made it a point to watch all the animated and live action short films, and even though some of them were obnoxiously arty, I could understand why they were nominated.

In past years, I've known nothing about the short films and so cared nothing about the short-film awards. This year, knowing what they all were, I made the mistake of voting for my favorites on my ballot at our Oscar party, instead of stopping to think: What will actors (the largest voting group) like?

In the real world, by far the best animated short was the Wallace & Gromit -- but the actors couldn't vote for that because it's one of a series of beloved comedies with continuing characters. Instead, they voted for the needlessly foul-mouthed "Logorama," whose intellectual concept ("Let's put corporate logos in ironic places!") was simple and plain enough to be understood even by people who think "the method" has something to do with acting. Besides, it was violent and dark enough to show that the short's creators admired Quentin Tarantino, who is still being called a genius despite the existence of so much evidence to the contrary.

Ditto with the live action shorts. "Kavi" was far and away the best, telling a feature's worth of story; but "The New Tenants" was -- get this -- needlessly foul-mouthed and violent enough that you can't help but think the filmmakers admired Quentin Tarantino ... Plus it had Vincent D'Onofrio.

I sound disdainful and, to a degree, I am. But I also understand the choices -- it's all about what you think short films are supposed to be, and what you think they're supposed to accomplish. If you think they're supposed to tell a powerful or entertaining story, you vote one way; if you think they're supposed to "push the envelope," which in Hollywood is still defined as "offending the middle class of 1957," then you vote another.

Look, I have a great time at our annual Oscar party watching really bad Oscar broadcasts in years when the movies were all so loathsome that from the promos alone I knew better than to attend. But I have an even better time when I really like quite a few of the movies and performances and care about the outcome, and when the movie people in the Oscar broadcast don't set out to offend me and everybody I love or respect.

This was a good year. We had a great party. The broadcast was not too long.

And since Avatar did not win -- a movie that was entirely created by the science fiction writers of twenty to sixty years ago, starting with Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe" and Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Word for World Is Forest," none of whom were credited or paid in any way by a writer-director who only employs people who think he's a genius -- I have nothing at all to complain about.

*

Who says astronomy doesn't have an effect on everyday life? An instant message from a friend: "Wow. The earthquake in Chile has made each day on earth 1.26 microseconds shorter. No wonder I'm not getting as much done."

*

On this year's American Idol, we've already heard this year's contestants touted as "the best ever." Maybe the judges believe it, but they're wrong. There have been worse years, but there have also been better.

There are some standouts. Crystal Bowersox is a full-blown natural, with the kind of control and richness of voice that can only be compared with Janis Joplin. Siobhan Magnus is also memorable and actually knows how to sing a song like she means it.

Most of the women, though, have woefully untrained voices, so when they try to sing big they merely go off pitch and screech; or they try to "style" a song in ways that they simply don't have the chops to bring off. Maybe Katelyn Epperly will grow into the competition, but I don't understand why the judges have so much praise for the annoying Katie Stevens or the vocally underprivileged Lilly Scott. Maybe they'll grow on me.

On the men's side, Michael Lynche is almost as good at his kind of singing as Crystal Bowersox is at hers -- and he's the best performer in the cast. Lee DeWyze isn't as sure-footed a performer, but his tone quality and understanding of the songs are unmatched among the guys. And you can't count out nine-year-old (that's how old he looks) Aaron Kelly, who is awkward and limited but has heart and is so cute you gotta root for him.

Maybe if Casey James can lose the smirk he can convince us that he actually means what he's singing; Andrew Garcia has ability, too.

But the fact is that there are few powerhouse voices, and of the lighter-weight voices, even fewer who understand what they can do and then do it well. It makes me wish that I could have just one night on the panel of judges to say, "Hey, kid, you're producing your voice by opening your palate in a way that makes your voice sound weird, and it isn't giving you the power you think it is," or "Have you heard of your diaphragm? If you use it to support your voice, you won't hurt our ears by screeching when you think you're singing a big note."

But it isn't American Idol's job to teach singing and performing, but rather to let the contestants offer what they already know and then learn whatever they can during the run of the show. It worked for David Cook and Kris Allen, as they overtook frontrunners and won.

If I had to pick a winner right now, it would be Crystal Bowersox. I want her album now. She already knows how to make me love a song.

Meanwhile, the judges are going through some interesting changes. Randy is actually offering some coherent suggestions and responses this year -- a first -- and Ellen deGeneres is candid without being cruel. For a nonsinger, she's surprisingly astute in her vocal as well as performance critiques.

I have no idea how Kara is doing, because the only way this show is watchable to my wife and me is if we fast-forward through her critiques. Almost everything she did during the audition weeks was so despicably self-serving, vain, and ignorant that now we simply pretend she isn't there. However, we have noticed that her comments are getting briefer and briefer, and that's got to be an improvement.

Simon is still the sharpest judge, and seems -- perhaps under Ellen's influence, perhaps because he's actually learned something -- to be a little less cruel. And Ryan seems to have gotten over the impression he has had in recent years that he is the most important of the judges, instead of what he really is: Not a judge at all.

Will Idol be worth watching when Simon Cowell is gone? Maybe. But I notice a dire sign. Our fifteen-year-old used to be an avid watcher of the show. But she's now so busy in school that she can only take the time to watch a handful of shows with the family. Her decision was that Idol was not one of them.

So in our household, the demographic has Idol being watched (on TiVo recording) by two over-fifties, and ignored by the only under-thirty. This gives Idol stats like Lawrence Welk; how long will the advertisers be enthusiastic about that?

Still, the show might work without Simon, because Ellen is the other dominant judge and I believe she can carry the show. If Kara is also given her walking papers and I am hired to replace her, it will be even better.

OK, yeah, back to planet Earth. Ellen is a good replacement for Simon. She's long been the best talk-show host on the air, and she brings a dignity and intelligence to Idol that it has never had before. If the show fails without Simon, it will be because the concept has run its course, not because Ellen wasn't good enough to take up the slack.


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