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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 16, 2016

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


TRTL Pillow, Lobster, Movie Freak

Those little airplane pillows have always been worse than useless. A rectangular pillow does what, exactly? If you put it behind your head, it pushes your head forward. Since the seats barely recline in economy class, that means that when you try to lie back, the pillow thwarts you.

So if you're by the window, you try to put the pillow between your head and the side of the airplane. How long does that work? Not very long before the pillow slides down or back. Your lucky if you can catch it against your shoulder to sort of prop it up for maybe a ten-minute catnap. Eventually, though, it's going to end up in your lap -- or on the floor behind your seat.

More than two decades ago, I bought my first horseshoe-shaped airplane pillow. It was inflatable, so I could pack it in my carry-on, then blow it up and drape it around my neck, across my shoulders. It stayed in place.

But since it was rubberized or plastic or some other airtight material, it was neither absorbent nor cool. In other words, if I actually fell asleep wearing it, my neck and cheeks dripped with sweat -- and my shirt collar could have watered a houseplant.

Then I had to open the valve and squeeze out as much air as possible before tucking the pillow back into my bag.

Was it Brookstone or some other company that first popped up with the soft-fabric, absorbent padded neck pillow? I saw it in an airport, bought it, and tried it out on the next leg of my journey. Then I threw away my old inflatable pillow.

The problem now was not inflation and deflation. This pillow stayed the same size. It came in a convenient zippered plastic carrying case, which was not at all convenient, and I ended up carrying the pillow onto planes in a canvas tote bag.

Since I invariably leave on flights with only a couple of hours of sleep the night before, in-flight sleeping is a necessity, and those horseshoe-shaped padded pillows saved my neck. Literally.

But let's face it. Carrying it as my "personal bag" -- the equivalent of a woman's purse, which can be brought on the plane along with a laptop bag or other carry-on -- meant that I couldn't carry anything else. So I'd jam in a couple of bottles of Hint Water that I bought once I had passed security, along with a bag of M&Ms or pretzels and maybe a book and ... very soon there wasn't room for everything I thought I needed.

A couple of weeks ago, I caught an ad on Facebook for a travel pillow that calls itself TRTL. When you read it aloud, it's supposed to sound like "turtle."

In use, it looks like a scarf. But inside that absorbent soft scarf, there's some structure -- a somewhat flexible but mostly rigid plastic frame. The frame rests on one of your shoulders, and when you rock your head slightly to that side, it holds your head up without any effort from you.

That means you can sleep with your head tilted to the side, no matter which seat you're in. On that horrible flight from Singapore to Djakarta, where I was almost screaming with sleepiness and the flight attendant would not let me tilt my seat back even the three centimeters that was all the movement it could do, because the passenger behind me needed to eat his leisurely banquet, composed of "food," without my seat back getting in his way, I could have used the TRTL Travel Pillow because it works even when your seat isn't reclined.

In fact it simply works. You look like you're feeling a bit of a chill and you've wrapped a scarf around your neck. But it's as if an EMT had wrapped your neck in a plastic brace to keep you from injuring yourself. That's how firmly you're supported. And yet it's comfortable enough that you can sleep.

No, let me be specific: It's comfortable enough that I can sleep.

You can order the TRTL NapScarf Pillow from Brookstone.com, or the Trtl Neck Pillow from Amazon.com. Or healthyback.com, or thegrommet.com. Just google Trtl Neck Pillow and you can even order it from various outlets in Britain.

It costs $30 from Amazon or Brookstone. But if you try it, I think you'll find that you won't use it only on plane trips. Because if there's any place where sleep is even more difficult than on an airplane -- and yet more desirable -- it's on a car trip.

Hours and hours and hours of sitting. Yet you have the same pillow problem as on planes -- rectangular pillows don't stay put, and in a car, the back seats probably don't recline. (Not in the kind of car I can afford, anyway.)

So maybe the next time you plan a family car trip to some place of near-lunar remoteness, like the west coast or the Outer Banks or, you know, Maine, you might want to consider the price of enough TRTL neck pillows for all your passengers as one of the expenses of the trip.

Especially you need one for the adult who's going to spell you off when you get tired. Doesn't that person need to get as rested as possible, so you can get a nice long nap with your TRTL pillow when it's your turn to sleep?

Look, this isn't going to replace your bed pillow, ever. But when you have to try to sleep sitting up, I've never found a solution half as good.

And while it doesn't fold up as snug as my old inflatable pillow, it takes up way less room than the U-shaped pillows of the past couple of decades.

*

I believe that on Uncle Orson's Weirdness Meter, the strangest movie ever made may well be The Lobster. Writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos has created a sci-fi social commentary about a society in which people are required to pair up, and if, after a reasonable amount of time, they remain alone, they will undergo an operation in which they are permanently converted into an animal of their choosing.

Most people choose dogs. There are goats, donkeys, horses, birds. David (Colin Farrell) has chosen, if he fails to find a mate to replace his erstwhile wife, to be turned into a lobster.

The reason seems to be that he really is a loner by disposition, and by choosing a lobster, he expects to be left alone to live a long, contented life Under the Sea. (Cue music. No, wait ... this isn't a Disney musical.)

The movie opens with a grimly determined woman driving out into the countryside, where she locates a particular donkey and shoots it with a pistol. Apparently, divorce wasn't enough for her, and she had managed to track down her ex.

David checks into a sort of mate-finding resort, where very strict rules are enforced by the hotel staff. They seem to think that the inmates need instruction and encouragement to get their mating drive on. If a couple form an attachment, they are immediately set apart from the loners; to help them develop an even stronger love, they may be supplied with a child. Their last test or training ground is a fortnight on a yacht.

Everyone seems to labor under the delusion that attachments can only form between people who are alike in some significant way. For instance, there's an attractive young woman who gets nosebleeds. The man who fancies her bashes his face into things until his nose bleeds so that she'll think he has her same nosebleed tendency. This fakery forms the basis of a bond between them.

All of these things, weird as they are, seem intended to shine a spotlight on our own society, on the perpetual drive for everyone to pair up. In service of this goal, many people do attempt to deceive each other into thinking that they're they ideal mate for their lover-of-choice. And those who fail to pair up -- or simply prefer not to -- are often treated as if they were not worthy of full personhood.

The Lobster, for all its programmed oddness, is a love story, though it feels as though the movie is half over before we even meet David's love interest -- a woman who shares his nearsightedness (Rachel Weisz). Meanwhile, they have both become involved with a group of illegal loners, who refuse to pair up and refuse to renounce their personhood. This group is every bit as restrictive and perhaps a little more cruel than the hotel staff.

By the end, it's hard to decode just what Yorgos Lanthimos means by all this. I suspect that, despite all his intentions to make a satire on our society's mating customs, he fell in love with David and his nearsighted beloved, so in the end, his story becomes a tale of just how far we'll go, or won't go, to become or remain worthy of the one we love.

I'm with him on that. I also came to care far more than I expected, and I liked this movie kind of a lot -- the way I liked Adam Sandler's turn in Punch Drunk Love. I don't expect anybody I know to like it as much as I do.

In fact, since I saw this with my wife and daughter, I happily report that my daughter was iffy about the film, but seemed to lean toward liking it. Whereas my wife hated, hated, hated it. I have never seen her emerge from a film we watched all the way through with quite such an adamant hatred for what she has just seen.

Years ago, when I thought Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was the best movie of its year, I warned the readers of this column that this was going to be a minority taste, that many of the events would be inexplicable and that most people would probably hate the movie or at least by confused by it.

Even with that warning, when my wife and I went back to see it again (this one my wife liked as much as I did), a fellow audience member, apparently a reader of this column, made it a point to say, quite loudly, as she passed me: "This is the worst movie I've ever seen."

I assumed she was annoyed with me for raving about the movie. But I warned her. It's not my fault if she didn't heed my warning.

So I'm warning you now, and please pay attention: Most people will hate this movie.

But if you think satirical views of our society are interesting, even when they're extravagantly odd, then you'll be rewarded with some marvelous performances by many actors, especially Colin Farrell, who gained a lot of weight to play this schlub of a character. (I must confess right now that I would have to lose about eighty pounds to be as out-of-shape as Colin Farrell is in this role; his schlub body is the one I aspire to achieve.)

The filming is beautifully matter-of-fact, and there's a lot of pleasure in spotting various animals scattered throughout the scenery, every one of them, presumably, a person who failed to come to an arrangement with a love interest before the deadline.

The movie has its rewards. It does make you think about how it is we go about forming attachments. All the awkward social rituals, like dances and other activities, are so hopelessly inadequate to meet someone you might actually like that you begin to wonder how anybody ever falls in love at all.

It makes you think. And in my case, it also made me feel.

So for people with my level of tolerance for significant weirdness and intellectual pretentiousness in film, The Lobster is spot on.

But if the Fast & Furious or X-Men franchises have the kinds of human relationships you're more interested in, this movie is going to have you wishing for death if you can't get out of the theater right now.

And I'm not disrespecting Fast & Furious. I've never seen any of that franchise in a theater, but I've watched a couple of them now (most recently #6, the one with the huge airplane that luckily finds a twenty-mile-long runway so there's room to do all their stunts as the plane manages a fifteen-minute touch-and-go passenger pickup) and I really liked them. So it's not that I have some kind of rarefied taste in films. I like regular movies as well as weird ones.

The Lobster is weird. I warned you.

It's playing at the Red Cinemas. Make sure to catch it soon, because I doubt it will be in the theater for long.

And when it makes it onto cable TV, I don't expect it to go into heavy rotation there, either. Wherever it goes, it's going to be a minority taste.

*

Owen Gleiberman, for many years the lead film critic for Entertainment Weekly, has written a memoir of how movie-watching has formed one of the main threads of his life.

I found his book, Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies, to be compulsively readable. Gleiberman is astonishingly candid, and seems not to have pulled any punches in his writing about his friends, rivals, bosses, co-workers, and foes in the world of film criticism.

Now, I'm a reviewer, but unlike Gleiberman, my income does not depend on whether an editor likes my reviews. I'm not paid for writing for the Rhino, and while our fearless editors do not simply print whatever I turn in, if they fired me I wouldn't have either a financial or an identity crisis.

In fact, by Gleiberman's standards, I'm a mere dilettante at best, not even up to the level of a Yelp reviewer, because they have to be concise and I do not.

Of course, by the end of his memoir, as Entertainment Weekly parts company with Gleiberman, he reports the pleasure he gets from the freeform extravagance that's possible when discussing films on the web. So ... maybe he wouldn't despise the kind of thing I do.

Yeah, he would. Because, even though I've paid close attention to movies since I was little, I had almost an opposite take on everything.

Gleiberman first fell in love with crappy horror movies on late-night television, back in the pre-streaming, pre-cable, pre-DVD, pre-VCR days when you watched what was on and that was that. A lot of his youth and college life was spent poring over the scheduled showings at campus and art-house cinemas. You could yearn to see a particular film by a particular director, yet have to wait years before it happened to play somewhere.

I, too, saw movies that same way -- but my list of movies does not overlap with his youthful list at any point.

That's because I've always hated horror movies. I hate bad horror movies because they're bad, and because they're horror movies. I hate good horror movies because I hate to be frightened by made-up stories and the better the horror movie, the more it scares me.

I have loved only two horror movies -- three if you count Brian de Palma's Phantom of the Paradise, which I see as a musical comedy. The two are Poltergeist and Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but in the years since Poltergeist I have managed to avoid almost all horror movies and the more I hear about the "great" ones, the less inclined I am to ever, ever see them.

Meanwhile, where his parents gave him carte blanche and even took him to movies that my parents would never have considered letting me see, my movie-going was mostly guided by my mom's love for Jeannette McDonald and Nelson Eddy operettas. I can sing every song in Naughty Marietta, my mother's favorite, right along with the actors. And since I can act better than Nelson Eddy even with my mouth numb from a root canal (so can you; so can everybody), these movies made me feel as if movie acting might be within my reach.

It is not. It never was. I'm glad I didn't break my heart trying.

But when your experience of movies growing up almost always involves either singing or a lot of period costumes, you're not going to grow up with a taste for the "cool" and "innovative" in film.

By the time I started reviewing movies regularly, I already had a rule: If I wouldn't go see a particular movie if I weren't a reviewer, I'm not going to go see it just so I can review it.

Gleiberman, on the other hand, was insatiable. Even if he thought he was going to hate a movie, he had to go see it, not because he was going to be paid for writing about it, but because he couldn't bear not to know about every possible kind of movie.

The result is that Movie Freak is full of short commentaries on a lot of movies, and I can honestly tell you that every movie that Gleiberman hates, I can see his point of view. I like some of them anyway, but everything he says against them is true. I just don't care.

However, when it comes to the movies Gleiberman is really enthusiastic about, I can happily tell you that there is not one that I would be willing to go to, because life is short and I don't need that nonsense in my memory.

Movie Freak is not just about movies. It's also a memoir of Gleiberman's life -- his strange relationship with his parents, his friends or lack of friends at different stages of his life, his long and strange relationship with noted reviewer Pauline Kael.

Here are three quotes from Kael that give you an idea of things Gleiberman may have learned from her. First, a quote he repeats a couple of times: "In the arts, the critic is the only independent source of information. The rest is advertising."

Then, a quote that Gleiberman clearly lived by, and I do not: "Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them."

And finally, a quote from Kael about the art and practice of film criticism: "A mistake in judgment isn't fatal, but too much anxiety about judgment is."

In other words, if you're afraid of making a mistake, you'll never write good criticism; and if you write good criticism, getting it wrong now and then doesn't make you a failure as a critic.

Gleiberman's candor about his own personal habits is, um, kind of extreme. I didn't want to know quite that much about many of his personal decisions and habits. Yet he writes well, and his very candor about distasteful things makes me trust him a bit more about the things he's proud of.

If you care about the quality of films, as I do, then I think you'll probably enjoy Gleiberman's memoir whether you agree with his judgments or not. I often don't, yet I found his reasons for liking films I hate (and vice-versa) were very illuminating, and invited me to examine my own standards of judging, not just film, but everything.

Here's where I think the biggest philosophical difference between Gleiberman and me comes out: Gleiberman loves film. He loves the whole experience of it, the good and the bad. He repeatedly says that he went into the theater hoping for transformation every time. He was searching for meaning in life, all the more because his parents provided very little guidance in that department.

It is very telling, however, that near the end of the book, when he finally falls in love and ceases his four-month-per-love serial monogamy, when he and his wife have a couple of daughters, he no longer feels quite the same hope and hunger when he goes to the movies.

And that's because he actually has meaning in his life that no movie is likely to compare to. He has found love and purpose in his family. (And thus we will not hear of Gleiberman turning into a lobster or a donkey anytime soon, pace The Lobster.)

I have never gone into the movies expecting them to provide me with meaning and purpose, because I've never lacked for either in my life and never, never imagined that anyone in Hollywood knew anything that I didn't already know much better than.

Gleiberman goes to movies for the movieness of them.

I go to movies for the stories. If the story is empty or foolish or stupid or malicious, then I don't really care how "well" it's made.

It's not that Gleiberman doesn't care about the content of movies. It's that his judgment depends more on the artistry of the films than on the stories they tell.

So he gives his perfunctory recognition that Citizen Kane is the greatest movie, ya-da ya-da. But I don't. Because all I see in Citizen Kane is the relentless vanity of an empty blowhard -- not Kane, but Orson Welles -- whose "artistry" is so heavy-handed I'm not sure but what he thought of moviemaking as blacksmithery, with his message the hammer and his anvil the audience.

I will forgive some ineptness in the art of filmmaking for a story that I care about and believe in. But if I hate every character and every word they say, I walk out and never look back. I neither know nor care how Pulp Fiction ended, because the only happy ending for that movie, after the thirty minutes I saw, would be for every character in it to be smashed and instantly killed by the tank that crunched its way up the freeway in Fast & Furious 6.

I have despised the promos for every Quentin Tarantino film because they all seem to be intellectually pretentious and violently childish. I've given Scorsese a few more chances because of Taxi Driver and because in his rare interviews he's not such a vain and empty-headed donkey as Tarantino.

Gleiberman admires both directors for their artistry -- and boasts a little about being real-life friends with Tarantino. All I can see is that Tarantino and Scorsese make appalling, obvious, ineffective artistic choices.

But let's give Gleiberman his due: He is willing to admit that in Marisa Tomei's Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, Tarantino's acting as Harry Roat, Jr., sucked with great suction (my choice of words, not his).

And when Gleiberman became good friends with Ben Affleck, he admits that this may have led to his shaving perhaps ten percent off of his criticisms of Affleck's performances in some roles. Because, you know, good friends are hard to find and no matter what people might claim, everybody suffers from harsh criticism, especially when it comes from a friend.

It's barely worth mentioning Gleiberman's fawning relationship with the worst living film director, Oliver Stone. Gleiberman admires him for his artistry, so he doesn't need to fudge on reviews of his friend. I loathe Oliver Stone because every time he deals with facts, he lies, lies, lies to promote his point of view. In other words, Gleiberman loves the filmitude, and I loathe the storiness of Oliver Stone's movies.

One of the things I found most endearing about Movie Freak was that Gleiberman read it for the audiobook himself. He's a very good reader, but what I found most charming was how many words he mispronounced, thereby revealing that even though they were part of his writing vocabulary, he learned these words by reading them.

Most amusingly, he used the word "comely" in reference to an attractive woman at least three separate times. And each time, he pronounced it to rhyme with homely, as if the word were "comb-ly."

In America, "homely" and "comely" are opposites (in Britain, "homely" has warm, friendly, and attractive connotations), and I think it's charming that Gleiberman made them rhyme in his head. But they do not rhyme.

If Gleiberman's book had shown him to be a vain, pretentious git, then such revelations of ignorance would have come as delightful pinpricks in his vanity. Instead, because his book is the opposite of pretentious, and he reveals himself to be made of too, too solid flesh, his mispronunciations are endearing.

Thus I forgive him for being completely clueless about Lord of the Rings, the book. His criticisms of Lord of the Rings, the movies, are spot on.

Look, not everybody wants to read the memoirs of a film critic. I can assure you that if I ever wrote a book about My Life Watching Movies, you'd have to be desperate for reading material to waste even a moment reading it. But Gleiberman's life is interesting, as are his views of film. His book helped me understand why, though I so often disagree with him, I have still found all his reviews worth reading.

And a would-be film critic -- or, for that matter, a would-be screenwriter -- would be hard-pressed to find a better school than Gleiberman's observations about film as art and movies as a business.


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