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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.

Who knew?

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 part.

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 again.

*

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 there.

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 additives.

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 types.

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 nauseating.

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 central.

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 Lost.

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 hopeless tangle.

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 chutzpah.

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, wasn't it?

Except. There is one deeply dumb metaphysical mistake that still hurts me to think about.

In the big final scene in the church, Claire is there with Charlie, holding baby Aaron.

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 just born?

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 real one.

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 way.

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.


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