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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 28, 2012

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


Nora Ephron, Brave, Rita Wilson

What an interesting life Nora Ephron led -- though I imagine there were times when she wished it were a little duller.

If you don't know who I'm talking about, I'm not surprised. When we go to the movies, we usually remember the actors; we don't see the writer, we don't see the director, so how can we "remember" them?

So let me remind you of who Nora Ephron was.

Once upon a time she was married to a famous reporter. He treated her badly and she divorced him. It didn't take long before the world realized who the talented one in the marriage had been. The smart one. The wise one. The one who changed the world for the better.

Nora Ephron wrote Silkwood, but what put her on the map was When Harry Met Sally ... (It also gave Meg Ryan her career and made us see Billy Crystal as something other than a comic.)

When Harry Met Sally ... also earned Nora Ephron a chance to direct. The first movie she wrote and directed didn't do so well. But the second one was Sleepless in Seattle.

She wrote some movies that I hated. She wrote some that were only almost-good. But she also wrote You've Got Mail. And her last feature film was Julie & Julia -- proving that she still had it.

If an artist has one piece of work that becomes part of the culture and stays in the public imagination, then that's a miracle. Even if it's not the piece the artist would have picked. Do you really think Da Vinci would have called Mona Lisa his best work? Or that Grant Wood would pick American Gothic? Or Whistler would point to the portrait of his mother?

So when an artist's best-known work is also good, luminous, illuminating, how wonderful is that? Nora Ephron did that twice: Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. Other films of hers might be admired more. But those two will live as long as movies do.

Who cares, then, if she also wrote the movie Bewitched? Anybody can have an off year.

Nora Ephron changed our memories by putting beautiful, funny, moving, truthful stories into our heads. Now she's dead. Not a tragedy -- we all die. The tragedy is if you leave nothing good behind you. She left a lot of good things behind her, and some great ones, and the world is better because she did her work.

Well done.

Peter Knegt on Indiewire wrote a reminiscence called "10 of the Best Lines From Nora Ephron's Movies."

Not all the lines he quotes were favorites of mine. But some of them are worthy of being engraved in stone, or at least affixed to your fridge with a magnet:

"When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible" (When Harry Met Sally ...).

"That's your problem! You don't want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie" (Sleepless in Seattle).

*

Brave is a wonderful movie. Writer/directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (along with Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi) have pulled off an extraordinary feat: A magical story that isn't based on a well-known classic.

This is not really surprising, coming from Pixar. Toy Story 3 already proved that a studio can nurture stories that have power and depth -- even as they entertain us greatly.

It's reassuring that the heartfelt whimsy of Brave absolutely destroyed the cynical vileness of Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter on their shared opening weekend.

Of course, Hollywood is learning all the wrong lessons: "Kids movies are in!"

No. Movies with story and integrity, creativity and fine craftsmanship are "in."

Is it a girls' movie? Sure. But it's also a boys' movie. And a parents' movie. The heroine may be a princess, but the adventures are terrific, and her three younger brothers are funny enough that young boys with think it's great.

The troubled relationship between mother and daughter is intelligently and compassionately drawn. The daughter rebels against the life she has been trained for -- a political marriage to help keep the peace.

Certainly the movie is in favor of children being able to choose their own lives -- as am I. I've never understood parents who demand that their children pursue a certain career or attend a particular college. Are you raising a person or a puppet?

But this is not a one-sided movie. The method the daughter (Merida) chooses to change her mother is destructive and stupid -- but it's also one that few real-world teenage girls will actually attempt.

No, the comeuppance for Merida comes when she realizes that she actually needed the skills her mother forced on her, and that her personal preferences really aren't more important than the needs of the kingdom.

In other words, sometime you gotta do stuff you don't want to do -- for the good of others. It's called responsibility, and you aren't a grown-up till you accept it.

All right -- I think we can safely say that this is a positive review. A veritable rave.

So now I can point out something that bothers me, about this and nearly every other movie and television show: The depiction of fathers as universally silly and purposeless.

In the real world, people who don't have fathers suffer terribly -- and not just because they are more likely to grow up poor, though that's not nothing.

Even wealthy fatherless people spend their lives searching for the self-validation that comes most clearly from a father who says, convincingly, "Good job. I'm proud of you."

A good father is not a joke. Neither is a bad one. Neither is an absent one. Yet from most television and film today, you'd think fathers were all villains or jokes.

Of course, that's the dogma of feminism today. Fathers are to feminists what global warming is to environmentalists -- something to be avoided at all costs, even though all the actual data indicates that it's a good thing.

I kept waiting for the father to do something non-idiotic. Something that showed why he was king. But no, all his achievements were either accidental (a sudden mutual enemy brought the warring tribes together) or were brought about by his wife.

He lost his leg fighting to protect his people -- but even that is a joke in this movie. He's a buffoon from beginning to end.

I didn't know just how much I hungered for any recognition of good-fatherhood in our public art until I watched the sequence in How I Met Your Mother where Marshall's father dies, counterpoised with Barney's constant searching for the father he never knew.

The scene when Barney can't even unbolt a basketball standard from his father's garage roof would have been enough for me to label How I Met Your Mother as the most father-friendly show in the history of television.

But there's an earlier moment in the same sequence that says it better. Barney, having met his father and found him inadequate, says, with determination, "I'm never going to see my father again."

And Marshall answers, "No. I'm never going to see my father again." And then: Your father is still alive. Even if he's not all you wanted him to be, he responded when you asked him to.

I think I could make a pretty good case that most of what's wrong with American life today dates from our decision to treat fatherhood with contempt. When we started mocking the fathers in Father Knows Best, Leave It to Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show.

These were men who worked hard for their families. Cared about their children. Treated their wives and children fairly and compassionately. Loved them. We should all be so lucky.

But now we live in a country where half our children grow up fatherless -- and it's the most miserable half, the half with the least chance of or interest in making anybody else happy.

So yeah, Brave is a very good movie, and the mother-daughter storyline is powerful and has a lot of truth in it.

But nobody's likely to see the equally important truth that if the husband and father -- the king -- had done either job, the conflict between mother and daughter would never have gotten so out of hand.

The feminist saying is, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

Well, start pedaling. The women in America most likely to marry a man and stay with him are the best-educated ones. I don't know what ticked off the man-hating feminists, but the real science suggests very strongly that children are happiest when they have a father and a mother, both doing their best to build a family.

What makes Brave unrealistic is not so much magic or fate or godlike will-o'-the-wisps -- it's the idea that a child can be happy as long as she gets along with and listens to her mother, while father is just a potentially dangerous clown to be fooled, or blocked from interfering with the smart people.

No, that's not what the filmmakers were trying to say.

That's why it's so very sad. It didn't occur to them not to say it. So pervasive is our society's contempt for fathers and fatherhood that we just take it for granted.

So to the fathers who keep plugging along, trying to support their families and be good to their wives and children, in the face of public ridicule of the very role they're trying to fulfil, I say this: Some things are worth doing even if you don't get any thanks or any respect.

Besides, you do have the respect of the people who aren't captives of this self-destructive culture. There are plenty of people who know the value of a good father. They just don't often get a chance to make a movie or get quoted favorably on the news.

But they know how hard it is to do fatherhood well, and how vital it is that the job be done, and when they see you doing it, they give you that little nod, when they catch your eye. The nod that says, "I saw that. Good job."

Too bad it's such a long time between nods.

*

I picked up a cd at Barnes & Noble the other day. I'd never heard of Alfie Boe, but the songs listed on the back of the album looked promising: fine Broadway songs, songs from the Great American Songbook.

Alfie Boe has a glorious voice. An Irish tenor with some of the power that comes from operatic training.

Too bad he has no idea how to bring a song to life.

In the midst of hearing his mechanical, technically proficient renderings of songs that only work when they have heart, I couldn't help but think of the pilot episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, when the middle-of-the-road station plays the Mormon Tabernacle Choir performing "You're Having Our Baby."

It was funny because the song was dead on arrival, and yet was being so earnestly sung.

Well, Boe isn't quite that bad. In fact, there are a couple of songs that aren't completely leaden.

But when you sing Sondheim's masterpiece "Being Alive" without showing any sign that you understand a single word of it -- well, let's just say that Boe is not ready for a permanent place in my song list.

I also picked up another promising album: Rita Wilson's first album, AM/FM.

I knew I liked her as a performer, and her name keeps being attached to good movies. She's also Tom Hanks's wife. But none of that says anything about whether she can sing.

Her song selection, like Alfie Boe's, dips into the past -- but, as the album name implies, it doesn't come from Broadway or the era of the big bands. Instead, she draws on the sings I grew up with -- the songs you couldn't escape if you had a radio in your car.

"All I Have to Do Is Dream," "Angel of the Morning," "Please Come to Boston." Songs like that.

Rita Wilson doesn't have a power voice like Alfie Boe's. Nor does she even attempt the ridiculous, annoying runs and riffs that ruin most of the female singers who compete on American Idol. She doesn't think she's Whitney Houston or Lady Gaga.

She just sings.

She sings every word as if she means it. Her voice is mature, with a pleasing tone. A yearning tone. It feels as if you're overhearing a good friend singing along with the radio, singing with all her heart, unaware that anybody's listening, not trying to impress anybody -- and it's beautiful.

You think: I knew I liked her, but I never knew she could sing like this.

Rita Wilson is about 55 years old. Not the age you normally start a singing career.

But I want her to make album after album. Everything she can record while her voice still sounds like this. I never knew it, but apparently I've been waiting all my life for Rita Wilson to sing my childhood back to me.


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