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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 6, 2012

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


Premium Rush, 50 Things, Deadly Animals, Harbach

It has been a long time since Joseph Gordon-Levitt played Tommy Solomon, the "kid" in Third Rock from the Sun. In that brilliant cast, Gordon-Levitt managed to stand out.

Then he showed that he could do grownup roles in (500) Days of Summer, a film in which the director tried to upstage the actors at every turn; Gordon-Levitt stole the movie right back.

It was in Inception that he first got to play a strong role in a smart blockbuster, and he got the nice-guy part in The Dark Knight Rises. He's got a career going.

But the Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie you don't want to miss is the bicycle-messenger thriller Premium Rush. This is absolutely his film, and the director knows it and helps him own it.

I don't know about you, but I can't imagine a movie about bicycle messengers being remotely interesting. I say this as someone who has biked several thousand miles in my life -- not a competitor, but somebody who loves to cover ground under my own power.

I've never understood daredevil biking -- perhaps because for me, it's daring enough just to try to share the road with the insane motorists who drive as if they intend to mount the spandex shorts of dead cyclists on their den wall.

I only went to this movie because of Gordon-Levitt himself -- and I was not disappointed.

Gordon-Levitt's character, Wilee (as in Wile E. Coyote, his nickname), is a sometime BMX trickster who got through law school but never took the bar exam, because he loved racing along on a fixed-gear bike, steel frame, no brakes -- the raw experience of your muscles chewing into the road surface.

The filming is smart and sharp. We see how he finds ways through tight traffic situations with split-second foresight. We see why his girlfriend fell in love with him -- and why she doesn't want to stay in love with a guy who seems to have a death wish.

But the story never forgets that it's about a particular package he has to deliver, top speed, by seven p.m. -- halfway down Manhattan Island in an hour and a half, in rush hour. The Chinese girl who is sending the package was a fellow law student. She also rooms with his girlfriend, and knows something about his relentlessness. So she asks for him in particular to deliver the package.

What neither she nor Wilee was counting on was that there's somebody else who really wants that package -- who needs it enough to kill for it.

Several times we flash back to earlier in the day in order to understand what is at stake for each person. But the writing and directing and editing are so deft that we're never confused about what's happening -- when we need to know something, we're told in a clear and fascinating way. And the whole movie takes place in less than six hours of real time.

The action never stops, and yet what makes it work (what always makes thrillers work, when they work at all) is how much we care about Wilee and the people he cares about.

The last bicycling movie I cared about was Breaking Away, and I only watched that because it came free with the first (used) VCR that I ever bought. In the era when each videotape cost eighty bucks, as long as you owned it, you might as well watch it. I did, I loved it. That was 1979.

Now my list of "great bicycle movies" has two items on it.

Apparently Premium Rush is classed as an indie film, which puts it on one of the tiny screens at the Carousel.

If you want to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt on the big screen, you'll have to wait for Looper, which looks to be a cool time-travel thriller. Gordon-Levitt, though, is strangely unrecognizable in the promos -- it makes me wonder if they've done something weird with his makeup to get him to look more like Bruce Willis, whose younger self he plays. Or maybe it's just the camera angles.

The thing is, Gordon-Levitt has the kind of intensity and power that lets him own the screen completely for the entire length of a feature film -- the kind of power that let Matt Damon hit so hard in the Bourne movies, and Clint Eastwood in those spaghetti westerns.

Even on a bicycle.

There is real evil in this film -- and yet it's strangely decorous. In fact, one of the characters comments indirectly on the fact that there's not a single word in the movie that isn't used in primetime television.

If the movie hadn't made a big deal of it, I wouldn't have noticed the lack of icky language. Why? Because when it isn't there, we don't miss it. Good writers don't need to drop bombwords into their scripts. They do it with characters, relationships, situations. They trust the actors to bring the language to life. I wish more writers had the talent and self-trust to do the same.

Warning: If you take anyone too young to have a driver's license, make them swear an oath that they will never, never get on their bike and try any of the stunts in this movie. Assure them that all the street scenes were carefully choreographed, with stunt drivers in all the cars.

On real streets, those cyclists would be flat as manhole covers long before the end.

*

50 Things Liberals Love to Hate, by Mike Gallagher, is more than your standard radio-talk-show-host movement-conservative screed. Most of those books, I find myself turning away in disgust after a while, because the sheer incoherency of "thought" in political books of the Right and the Left fills me with contempt bordering on despair.

With Ann Coulter's first book, it took me three chapters.

With Michael Savage's first book, it took me three paragraphs -- and that was only because it took two paragraphs to believe that he was really saying what I thought he was saying.

So it's refreshing that in 50 Things, Mike Gallagher actually shows (1) a sense of humor, (2) a spark of tolerance for people who disagree with him, and (3) a few moments of awareness that it might be possible for good people to disagree on some points, and agree on others.

Look, it's not a serious book. It's an entertaining book about serious things. There's a difference. But it can be read by liberals and conservatives and moderates and independents with relatively little pain.

One of the points Gallagher makes early on is that conservatives generally admit they're conservatives, while liberals usually have to append asterisks to the liberal label before they're willing to wear it.

And he's right. There are two reasons for that.

1. Even though "conservativism" is every bit as incoherent a "philosophy" as "liberalism" today, all the semi-insane self-contradictions of conservatism have been around, essentially unchanged, since Reagan was elected president. In case you haven't noticed, 32 years have passed since then. We're used to conservative insanity.

2. Liberalism, on the other hand, was already semi-insane when McGovern's people took over the Democratic Party in 1972, but they kept changing their insanity, constantly adding new irrationalities by some kind of backroom consensus, without any intervening thought. They just keep discovering new "rights" or "crises" that everyone is expected to believe in without any argument or discussion or, God forbid, compromise or legislative process.

So "liberalism" is all over the map. It won't hold still. Its insanities keep multiplying. That's why liberals need a bunch of asterisks.

For instance, as of 1976, when I first decided I was a Democrat, there was still a substantial "sane wing" of the Democratic Party. I could call myself a Moynihan Democrat -- strong on defense, strong on Civil Rights, but able to compromise and govern rationally.

But "liberal" has shifted so radically in meaning since that time that without changing any part of my general philosophy, I have found myself accused of being a "conservative."

It's like discovering, thirty years later, that the rock group "The Eagles" now sounds like a country band -- not because they changed, but because country music has now become 1970s rock-and-roll.

So Gallagher is right -- liberals need to explain for about fifteen minutes what they mean by calling themselves "liberal," because we all know that what passes for "liberalism" today is so deeply insane and anti-social that no rational person can possibly support the entire program.

It contradicts itself too much to bear even cursory analysis, and it has never had to pass through the wringer of public discussion in order to knock off the weirdest features of it. It is automatically hugged by academia and kissed by the media without anybody noticing just how diseased this thing has actually become.

And yet ... and yet ... I still remember why I became a Democrat in 1976, and all those reasons are still there. So even when I find myself laughing and nodding through Gallagher's book, I keep thinking, "But he's referring to those 'liberals,' who aren't really liberals at all."

Because that's where we are right now -- the most repressive Zwinglian group of thought police in America call themselves "liberal," a word that means the exact opposite of everything they do. Obama is not a liberal -- he's a lockstep mechanical man in the mindless police force of the puritan elite. He shows no evidence of knowing anything about history or economics or actual human nature or anything except how to play at Chicago politics.

So Gallagher is right about that kind of "liberal." But he's not right about me. And there are still a lot of people in America who share the views and values I have. They just don't call themselves liberals anymore. The word has been coopted by the thought police.

We're the politically homeless, and nobody's writing books to us or about us. All the political books seem to be written as if Sean Hannity and Bill Maher were the only two flavors in the whole ice cream store.

At least Gallagher seems to notice that the whole world isn't divided between (1) the spawn of the devil and (2) people who think Ronald Reagan was God's second-favorite son. That's progress, don't you think?

*

So if two political conventions aren't enough to depress you about life in America, you can cheer yourself up considerably by reading The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice.

He starts with wolves and dogs and points out that if you want to get killed by an animal, the one that will get you is probably already somebody's "pet."

Then he goes on to bears. Believe me, there are no cute bears. Just bears that haven't felt like killing you yet. And in the cat chapter, you can be very glad that housecats are so small. Otherwise we'd all be dead -- whether we "love" cats or not. They don't love us.

Between sharks, rays, jellyfish, and whales, there's really no reason to venture into the ocean. Or water of any kind that doesn't have heavy doses of chlorine.

Then he gets to the arachnids and insects and let's face it. It's a miracle the human race survived long enough to get us where we are.

It's a jungle out there, folks -- and in here, too, with all the insects and spiders lying in wait to poison you or suck your blood. I started reading this monstrous book at midnight and set it down at five a.m., only to lie there under my covers trying to imagine just how many ways I might get killed without leaving my yard.

The raccoons that forage on my patio at night no longer seem so cute. No wonder they sit there complacently when I shine a light on them, as unworried as if I were the size of a squirrel. I have no claws. I have no teeth. What threat could I possibly pose?

The raccoon that stares up at me, unafraid, is really thinking, "Just you wait till I get rabies. I'm coming straight here. Then you can come out in your little bare nighttime feet and shine lights on me. See what happens then."

*

So I'm in Earth Fare and I see Sunflower Flax Snax by Go Raw. I was aware of the existence of the raw food movement. It wasn't even a surprise. Whenever somebody becomes a puritan, somebody else has to come up with ways to be even more pure.

So vegetarians were trumped by vegans. And now vegans are trumped by the raw movement.

Still, just because you're Raw doesn't mean you don't need to have snack food -- after all, you're still American, right?

Besides, if you're Raw, you're hungry all the time -- even hungrier than vegans. Human beings began cooking their food long before we achieved sapiens status -- until we had cooked food to eat, our teeth couldn't evolve to their present semi-useless, McDonald's-ready size and shape. And they've been that shape through at least a hundred thousand years of human fossilization.

So when you "go Raw," you're trying to turn back into a creature we stopped being before our brains got big enough to enable us to figure out the area of a rectangle.

However, the more I read the ingredients of the Sunflower Flax Snax, the more I realized: I like all this stuff. Why not see what the Raw are eating?

Here's what I learned. Sunflower Flax Snax are delicious. Really, really delicious. I ate half a package at one sitting, thinking, If Raw is always like this, I could live with it.

Within about five hours, however, I learned that my body thinks that Raw food must be ejected as quickly as possible. Without regard to what I might be wearing or where I happen to be at the moment. That was a memorable two days. Especially since six hours of the time was spent on an airplane.

In conclusion, I intend to stick with the last hundred thousand years of human evolution, and eat mostly cooked food. But those who go Raw, I salute you. In your effort to turn yourselves back into proto-chimps, you exhibit a level of courage and stamina that I don't even want to emulate.

*

One nice thing about listening to classical music on XM Sirius satellite radio is that now and then, I hear a piece of music I never heard before. And if I switch from my GPS map view to the satellite radio view on my Hyundai Santa Fe's viewscreen, I can find out who the heck the composer is, and what the piece is called.

That's how I found out about the piece "American Solstice" by composer Barbara Harbach.

I went on Amazon and looked for any cds containing that piece. I found a series of six albums of the orchestral, vocal, and chamber music by this remarkable composer, and I'm listening to them all.

She teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; years before, she founded Vivace Press to publish music by "underrepresented composers."

The reason is obvious. Composition students who believe what their music professors teach come out writing music that nobody in their right mind wants to listen to, except to be able to tell their friends that they did.

Symphonic music has moved almost entirely to the realm of film scores, but the problem there is that film scores tend to be repetitive and irresolute. It serves the story, as edited; the music can't go where it needs to go for its own sake.

Barbara Harbach is somewhere in between. There's plenty of music in this cd collection that proves her credentials as a survivor of American university musical indoctrination. But even the most "experimental" is quite listenable.

Because somewhere along the way, Harbach apparently missed the memo about how all the beautiful, powerful music has already been written, so serious composers are all required to write music that is painful or annoying.

She actually writes beautiful music now and then. And clever, jesting music. And well-constructed, satisfying pieces. What a shock. A modern composer who thinks it's OK to create music that regular people might actually enjoy.

Look, if you already don't care about classical music, for heaven's sake don't start with Harbach. Start with Barber's Adagio for Strings. Start with Copland's Appalachian Spring.

Harbach's music is in the middle of the conversation; it only makes sense if you know what has come before, what she's answering with her music, what she's rebelling against.

But if you've been listening to classical music for a while now, and you can tell in a few measures whether a piece sounds like it comes from the Baroque, Classical, or Romantic period, if you can tell Satie from Bach and like them both, then you'll be delighted with Harbach.

It's as if she's taking a runaway horse and heading it back toward the road. It's not there yet. But it's heading in a good direction. A direction that might get civilians back into the concert halls for new music, and not just the standards.


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