Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 23, 2010
Every Day Is Special
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Shrek 4, Lost
I had no intention of going to see Shrek Forever After. While the first two
Shrek movies were quite enjoyable, the third was a stinker, and it was clear the
franchise was dead.
But you know how it goes. It was Monday night and we were planning to go
see the documentary Babies, but my wife felt ill and, not wanting to see Babies
without her, our sixteen-year-old and I looked around for something not-R-rated that might be fun.
"At least we can enjoy mocking it if it really sucks," I suggested.
"We can mock it even if it doesn't suck," she replied.
Here's the surprise: In an uncrowded theater (we chose the non-3D showing,
and it was Monday), where it's harder to laugh (crowds make laughing easier),
we found ourselves hooting and laughing out loud -- and not subversively,
either. We were actually laughing at things they wanted us to laugh at.
Maybe it's because this time the writers (Josh Klausner, who cowrote Shrek 3)
and Darren Lemke, who didn't) made two excellent decisions:
1. They created a terrific villain, Rumpelstiltskin, and cast Walt Dohrn in the
2. They stole good ideas from the best movies and ended up with a story that
allowed them to reinvent the original.
They took the basic premise of It's a Wonderful Life -- what if Shrek had never
been born, had never saved Fiona, etc. -- and then did exciting things with it.
Fiona (Cameron Diaz) gave up and rescued herself, then organized all the ogres
into a resistance movement against Rumpelstiltskin's tyrannical rule. Puss in
Boots (Antonio Banderas) got fat and lazy. Donkey (Eddie Murphy) pulled a
prison cart for witches, singing for them like a car radio.
Most important, though, is the fact that in this story Fiona had never met
Shrek and owed him nothing. Since the only way that Shrek can break the
curse that has ruined the whole kingdom is to get her to kiss him -- and mean
it -- within 24 hours, her lack of interest in him is a serious problem.
Well, not serious -- this is a comedy! -- but let's remember that in these
movies, Shrek is the straight man. To him, it's a desperate situation, and Mike
Myers plays him exactly right.
Maybe all this sounds dumb. You just have to trust me -- when you're
watching the movie, it works.
So here's the good news: The Shrek franchise is going out with a bang, not a
whimper. Comedy only works if the audience cares, and they made me care
At Fresh Market I picked up a new low-calorie snack -- I'm always looking for
those, since I know I'm not going to give up eating. The concept is not to use
fat substitutes (I could never warm to the side effects of Olestra and Olean), but
rather to eat naturally lo-cal foods.
That means puffed grains, so you feel like you're filling your mouth with
something, and you get decent hunger-satiation, but it has very little fat or
sugar. I actually like some rice cakes, and there are great corn cakes out
Now I'm pleased to tell you about Mr. Wheat All Natural Crispy Wheat Healthy
Grain Popping Snack. Each puffy wheat cake has only 16 calories. It's high in
fiber (and I'm old enough to appreciate that), and it has no preservatives or
I like the sea salt flavor best. Well, no, let's be honest. I like the sea salt flavor
at all. I didn't care for the other two. But one out of three is still one! So if,
like me, there are times you really want to eat, but shouldn't, this is as close to
being nothing as you can get, while still tasting good and containing no fake
sugar or fake fat.
There are books that you want to read all at once -- the kind you can't put
down because you're eager to see what comes next. My whole career depends
on readers who feel that way, who hunger for page turners, stories they can
care about and that go on for hundreds of pages.
But I also have uses for books that are meant to be read in short bites. Books
you not only can put down, but should.
One such book is What If the Earth Had Two Moons?: And Nine Other
Thought-PRovoking Speculations on the Solar System, by Neil F. Comins.
I know, I already reviewed his previous book, What If the Moon Didn't Exist?:
Voyages to Earths That Might Have Been. Both of them are full of fascinating
speculations, and Comins comes up with good science. By looking closely at
arrangements of planets and stars and other objects that don't exist, it helps
you understand -- and appreciate -- the way things happen to be arranged.
Each of the ten sections of this book is fascinating in its own right; and when
you've read one, it's done. It's like having ten very short and fascinating books.
So it won't keep you awake all night finishing it, the way a good novel might --
and yet you'll be happy to pick it up again until it's done.
I found it so interesting, in fact, that it seriously reshaped what I was doing
with a novel I was working on at the time. If you read What If the Earth Had
Two Moons? and then next Thanksgiving read my novel Pathfinder, you'll see
just how much. I found it irresistible (and scientifically plausible) to give the
world of my novel a ring instead of a moon, for instance; and I used his
depiction of a volcanic extinction event as a guide for events in Pathfinder.
Even if you're not a science fiction writer, I think you'll still enjoy the book. It's
the most painless way to get an understanding of the delicate balances that
allow life to thrive on Earth. I feel as if, between these two books, I've had the
best astronomy and atmospheric geology class ever.
Another read-it-in-chunks book is American History Revised: 200 Startling
Facts That Never Made It into the Textbooks, by Seymour Morris, Jr. The word
"history" in the title might make a lot of people's eyes glaze over, because
history was so boring in school, but forget the hi- and think -story. I promise
you, Morris understands how to make facts into a good yarn.
Sometimes Morris's liberal views creep in -- his take on Eisenhower is simply
silly; he redefines the word "militaristic" until it only fits Ike, and then says
"gotcha!" while revealing little understanding of the era Eisenhower presided
over -- but most of the entries in the book are truly what the title promises:
good stories that most people have never heard about.
And each one can be read in only a few minutes. You can get a decent
smattering of cool American history just by picking up the book in the
bathroom or when you go to bed, and reading one story. Betcha can't do it
without getting all excited and telling somebody else about at least a couple of
the events or people.
If you care about the TV series Lost but somehow missed the final episode last
Sunday, don't read the rest of this column. It's full of spoilers.
But not full enough. Because I know a few people who were furious at the end
of the finale, because they left so many key questions unanswered.
I was more forgiving, but that's because (a) I know how impossible it was to
create a satisfactory wrap-up for an extravagantly creative story that was made
up without any coherent plan, and (b) the writers basically gave up and
decided to create a satisfying emotional ending for that portion of the audience
that cared most about the characters and their relationships.
Lost was a combination of Weird Science and Soap Opera.
The fans who were following primarily the Weird Science story got a kind of
medium crappy ending, with a badly written and badly acted goddess who stole
another woman's twin children and turned them both into monsters of various
A number of really big events were left completely unexplained. Where did the
island go when it disappeared? What did the cave of light have to do with the
magnetic anomalies? What actually happened when the nuke exploded? Was
the alternate life we've been following all this season "real" or not? What was
going on with Walt?
And the mumbo-jumbo Oprah-level "religion" at the end was simply
But the fans who were following primarily the Soap Opera got a decent
resolution to the main relationships. Locke, to my great relief, becomes himself
again (though he doesn't seem to end up with his fiancee); Jack and Kate wind
up together after all; so do Sawyer and Juliet; so do Charlie and Claire; Sayid
ends up with Shannon; Jin and Sun come back to life; Daniel Faraday gets to
play the piano; Ben actually earns a kind of semi-redemption; and Hurley is
finally given the respect that he has deserved all along.
You could look at it as a giant Dallas cop-out, with Patrick Duffy stepping out
of the shower to reveal that the previous season was all a dream. I mean, come
on. These guys were dead and now they're back for the happy ending?
But Lost was so metaphysical that it could get away with stuff like that. The
writers did a brilliant job of making us buy into the alternate reality that
dominated this last season -- the world that these people might have lived in if
the island hadn't dragged them away from their real lives.
At the same time, the writers showed us that the island was not unreal in the
alternate reality -- Desmond is wandering around making them all "remember"
the island life that supposedly never happened in that version of life. So when
it's revealed that this alternate reality is a holding pattern for the dead, where
they wander through a purgatory in which many of their deepest issues are
resolved and they reconcile themselves to the greatest agonies of their lives, it
feels -- to the Soap Opera viewers -- quite satisfying.
Look, these guys never knew what they were doing with this series. And the
actors kept screwing up whatever plans they did have. Sometimes the actors
wrecked things by being so darn compelling. Jack was supposed to die after
the first episode. Ben was only signed on for three. They weren't the only
actors who were so good the writers changed their storylines to make them
The actor playing Mr. Eko quit the show. The actress playing Ana Lucia had
problems in her life. The actor playing Walt hit puberty. The writers put
themselves in an impossible situation with Michael after they made him a
murderer. Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet) got a leading role in V and had to die in
But let's be honest here. Most of the tangled web of unresolvable questions in
this series were the writers' own fault. Too often they just had "cool stuff"
happen and even if they thought they knew what it meant, later episodes
changed the meaning of what had gone before and six years in, they were in a
In a way, it was a miracle they got to an ending at all. When they lost their way
and made the series ridiculous and tedious -- remember Sawyer and Kate in
the cages? Alex Rousseau and her absurd boyfriend? -- they were able to pull
themselves out through inventiveness, brilliant new characters, and sheer
Remember that this series was the idea of a programming executive -- who got
fired just before this series (and Desperate Housewives) lifted ABC out of the pit
of despond. J.J. Abrams then set up a Smallville-like Weird Science/Soap
Opera culture among the writers.
In fact, if you want to appreciate the ending of Lost a little more, take a look at
how Smallville -- a remarkably similar series -- has corroded into nothing.
There's something to be said for setting a definite ending date and writing to it,
even if you still leave a lot of loose threads. Smallville should have ended with
the departure of Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor -- a bang-up ending, Clark
Kent learns to fly, and Superman isn't in Smallville anymore. Period.
So look, the ending of Lost wasn't perfect, but it had one, and it was way better
than I had feared. Emotionally it worked for the Soap Opera viewers, and for
the Weird Science viewers, you've got to admit that it was fun along the way,
Except. There is one deeply dumb metaphysical mistake that still hurts me to
In the big final scene in the church, Claire is there with Charlie, holding baby
So what does that mean? That Aaron's life as a toddler after Kate and Jack
raised him back in the U.S. didn't happen? The reality is that he really was
But how can that be? We're told that everybody in that chapel grew up and
died, some of them living for many many years after others. In this timeless
purgatory, there was now "now" and "then," right? This is the "truth" we were
told to reconcile everything.
So didn't Aaron grow up? Isn't he there because he, like every other person
there, had lived his life and died?
Or does this mean he died as a toddler? Was being an infant in his mother's
arms really the high point of his life?
But that's not the worst. We had baby Aaron from the alternate reality, the
same reality where nobody went to the island. He is treated as if he were the
Meanwhile, we spent four episodes of this last season coming to know and love
Jack's and Juliet's son David (gorgeously portrayed by Dylan Minnette, whom
I want to see again and again on the screen!). After Locke is "awakened" to the
island storyline, he tells Jack, "You don't have a son."
That's it? This boy is erased?
I know, he was put into the story so that Jack could learn to forgive his own
father by seeing what a bad father he himself had been to David; and by
redeeming himself in his son's life, he also was redeeming his own father.
Great. Fine. A lovely literary fillip.
But that didn't mean we didn't like the kid and care about him. In fact, that
simply made his existence all the more important!
If they can keep the Aaron-born-at-the-concert and put him in the church, they
could have kept the boy David from that same reality! At least they could have
left us with the thought that maybe he existed, but had lived his own life and
would gather with a different group in the afterlife. But no, the writers
specifically and clearly denied him.
And I'm afraid I annoyed everybody watching with me by continually saying,
"What about the boy?" How could Jack possibly be happy getting his father
back but losing his son? If Jack can really write off his own son that way and
be content, never even mentioning him after Locke says that he doesn't have a
son, then Jack really is the worst father in the world.
Bad, bad writing mistake. Shame on them. It was unnecessary and careless;
maybe they didn't realize how important and memorable that boy had become,
but they should have known.
And yet ...
Let me put this in perspective. None of their mistakes with Lost was as
damaging as, say, Peter Jackson's decision to eliminate the Scouring of the
Shire while introducing a stupid time-wasting subplot with Arwen in Lord of the
Rings. Jackson had the greatest work of literature of the 20th century there in
front of him, showing him the way, and he was too idiotic to give it precedence
over the film-school crap that he brought to the movie.
Yet despite that deep, infuriating damage, Jackson's Lord of the Rings is a
monumental, unforgettable work of filmic art.
By contrast, the Lost writers had no great work of literature to guide them.
They had only a premise from a studio executive, the actors they found, and
their own inventiveness. At the end, they left a lot of people unsatisfied, and
they made some mistakes that really hurt.
But with all that said, it was a glorious, unforgettable ride, and Lost will stand
as a monument too, of television at its best. Episodic TV imposes its own
problems on writers, and they adapted the medium to fit Lost in a noteworthy
This wasn't Law and Order, whose writers found a perfectly balanced formula
that allowed viewers to watch the episodes in any order for twenty seasons.
That's TV at its natural best.
Lost spent most of its life rushing headlong through adventure, mystery,
drama, comedy, even tragedy -- but it was one story the whole time, the
opposite of what television is traditionally good at.
Lost was a brilliant achievement. I have already ordered the complete set,
scheduled for release on 24 August. And I will watch it again. I'll yell at the
screen sometimes -- just as I yell at the screen rewatching Lord of the Rings.
"Where's Sam's box of dirt!" I yell at Galadriel. At the end of Lost, I'll again
shout "Where's your son, Jack!" So what?
It doesn't have to be perfect to be great.