Let's look at two actors who have been decorating our screens for thirty years: Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise.
They have both starred in huge-box-office movies. They have both given beautiful, intense, artful performances. They have both been very funny in film roles.
They're both sensible enough to continue repeating roles that bring them huge paydays, so they can afford to take smaller roles when they feel like it. For Depp, that repeating role is Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. For Cruise, it's Ethan Hunt in the Mission Impossible series.
Somehow, though, Depp has gotten a reputation as an arty, daring, edgy performer who occasionally hits paydirt -- he's perpetually cool.
Cruise, on the other hand -- perhaps because of his ties with Scientology -- has gotten a reputation as crazy in an uncool way, and he is often given no respect as an artist.
Reviewers treat Cruise as if he always played the same guy -- Tom Cruise -- in every movie, while Depp is treated by critics as if he were marvelously inventive, even though sometimes his creativity doesn't quite work.
But the truth is almost the opposite, in my opinion. Depp is a shallow actor who always plays Johnny Depp in weird makeup. His concentration is always inward, so that even when he's been given a marvelous scene, he acts as if he were the only person present.
Cruise, on the other hand, is a generous, outward-focused performer who, even in his most demanding, intense performances, works to help his partner on screen achieve the best possible performance.
If you're in a Depp movie, you'll have to fight just to be visible on the screen. If you're sharing the screen with Tom Cruise, there's one thing for sure: Cruise is going to do everything he can to support and help your performance.
I recently saw Jack Reacher, from 2012. Since I had never read any of Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels (this one is based on One Shot), the name meant nothing to me and I didn't even think of going to the theater to watch it. But that's what cable is for -- to bring me movies I wouldn't otherwise see.
There's no point in telling you the plot of Jack Reacher, because almost everything I say would be a spoiler. The basic set-up is that a crazy ex-sniper is arrested for a seemingly random sniper attack on American civilians on a city street. The evidence against him is overwhelming.
But he doesn't ask for a lawyer. He only wants to see Jack Reacher -- even though it turns out that back when Jack Reacher was with the military police, he caught this guy for randomly murdering civilian contractors in Iraq.
And who is Jack Reacher now? He lives completely off the grid: No credit cards. No bank accounts. No luggage. He never flies, never rents a car. Nothing that requires photo i.d. (which means he can still vote, as often as he likes, because this is, like, America).
How far does this no-luggage thing go? He's meeting with the sniper's attorney (Rosamund Pike) in his hotel room, and he takes his sweatshirt off. Bare-chested, he washes it in the bathroom sink while they talk. She tells him that there's no point in trying to seduce her, so "please put a shirt on." He holds up the wet, wrung-out sweatshirt and says, "This is my shirt." OK, yeah. No luggage.
This role is written so that the movie completely belongs to Tom Cruise. Except that he keeps sharing it. An actor with Cruise's clout could make sure he was the only charismatic presence in the film, because he could veto the participation of any other actor.
Instead, some wonderful actors -- besides Rosamund Pike, we have Robert Duvall, Werner Herzog, Richard Jenkins, Joseph Sikora -- are all given strong featured moments.
I've seen a lot of movies that have an 800-pound-gorilla actor in them, and the big guy gets all the choice shots. Think of Barbra Streisand's incredibly selfish handling of Prince of Tides, in which Nick Nolte's biggest scene consists mostly of Barbra Streisand listening to him. In effect, Nolte was erased from the film.
Never with Cruise. I mean never. When Werner Herzog has his most powerful scene, we get a few brief shots of Cruise listening, but the scene belongs to Herzog. Duvall, who knows how to steal scenes, doesn't have to: They're given to him. And Rosamund Pike gets a chance to be smart and powerful; she can hold her own with Cruise as an actor, but Cruise allows it to happen. Cruise doesn't have to diminish anyone else in order to give his performance.
Through all of this, Cruise's performance as Jack Reacher is understated and completely believable. You leave the theater thinking that maybe a guy like that could actually exist in the real world.
Cruise does the same kind of thing in Edge of Tomorrow, where he does nothing to weaken the dominating performance of Emily Blunt. In a lot of ways, Cruise's performance is almost shy; the point of the story is that Cruise, a guy who always got by on charisma, gets his comeuppance and has to accomplish something real by learning from Blunt's character.
It's easy to think of Cruise's performance in Knight and Day, in which he plays a hyperactive spy who must dominate Cameron Diaz's character in order to keep her alive, as being "typical" of Cruise. But no; Cruise can dominate with pure energy and intensity of performance, but he can also be almost self-effacing, as in Edge of Tomorrow and, to a surprising degree, Jack Reacher.
In fact, even though all of Cruise's characters are almost as good-looking as film star Tom Cruise, they are all different from each other. Yet Cruise plays them so perfectly that you think you've just seen a guy playing himself. In other words, it's hard to catch Tom Cruise visibly acting. It always seems like his character isn't a performance at all.
This is so often true of the best acting: You don't notice it. It's invisible. If you notice the acting, it means it's a bad performance. You almost never catch Cruise "acting."
By contrast, you never catch Johnny Depp not acting. Sometimes we really enjoy his obvious, eccentric, unnatural, no-human-ever-acted-like-this performances. Mostly we don't. But what we never see is Johnny Depp playing someone who might exist in the real world.
This was brought home to me most recently when I caught Black Mass on cable. Even though it's a 2015 movie, I never heard of Black Mass till I caught glimpses of it while channel-flipping.
The first few times, I immediately switched away, because the face I saw was Johnny Depp's. But not Johnny Depp's face, really. It was Depp with a bizarre makeup job, doing a performance built around extreme affectation.
It's like watching the "makeups" (usually masks) on the TV show Face Off. I have never seen a good makeup job on that show, because none of them has ever looked like a living creature, under any lighting except near-complete darkness.
Well, that's Johnny Depp's all-makeup characters. Playing the real gangster Whitey Bulger, in Black Mass Depp never has an honest human moment. His face is a mask, and he never responds in a natural, human way with anybody on the screen. I don't know how anybody plays a scene with this guy -- he gives them nothing.
Casting Depp as Tonto in The Lone Ranger doomed the movie -- because, stuck into the middle of what could have been a fun adventure film, there was this non-human figure that moved around and said things, but destroyed any kind of believability whenever he was on the screen.
Dark Shadows could have been a hit -- had we cared about the character Barnabas Collins. But, played by Johnny Depp, it was impossible to care what happened to him.
Ditto with the 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All that Depp gave us was a powerful longing to see Gene Wilder's clever, nuanced performance in the same role decades before.
What with makeups that serve as masks, it's as if everybody else is in a realistic American movie, but Johnny Depp is wearing a mask in Japanese Kabuki or Noh theatre, doing stylized, unnatural things that are meant to represent real human actions without actually resembling them.
It's absolutely true that Depp's Kabuki performance as Jack Sparrow has been a large reason for the series' success; but the best thing about these movies has been the fact that the actors playing real people are almost never in important scenes with Jack Sparrow. He belongs in the scenes where he's interacting with dead people and monsters, because Jack Sparrow is a monster, too.
Don't misunderstand: I think Johnny Depp has been a wonderful actor. What's Eating Gilbert Grape, for instance. Nick of Time. And ... and ...
And no matter how far back I go, Depp seems to gravitate toward clown-makeup roles, without a scrap of honest humanity: Cry-Baby, which is possibly the worst movie ever made; Edward Scissorhands, in which he plays only one human trait -- vulnerability; Ed Wood, where the whole point of the movie is the weirdness of Ed Wood.
So instead of the reputations Depp and Cruise have among critics and connoisseurs, I find myself with the opposite view: Cruise is the artful, brilliant actor who gives nuanced performances so real that it never looks as if he's acting. Cruise doesn't just deadpan his way through his roles -- he's not doing Clint Eastwood the way that Matt Damon seems to do as Bourne (not to disrespect either Eastwood or Damon; it's a stylistic choice).
Cruise takes on roles that require powerful emotions and plays them full out, without protecting an image. From Risky Business on, he has been willing to play characters who say and do dumb things, who show powerful emotions.
Depp, by contrast, constantly protects himself from the risks involved in playing a real human being. Nobody could ever imagine, watching a Depp performance, that he in anyway resembles the clown-mask character he's portraying on screen. That's because nobody could resemble it.
I've heard people speak disrespectfully of Shia LaBeouf as an actor, and I feel it's my duty as a critic to say, What do you expect?
LaBeouf was a child actor, playing kid roles in Holes and Disturbia and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
In all these teenage roles, his performance was excellent -- despite the fact that all three movies had serious flaws. But his eager boyishness, which absolutely made those performances, was bound to work against him as he tried to transition into adult roles.
In Transformers, he still played a kid living at home with his parents. But there were no parents or adult heroes dominating his action scenes. LaBeouf owned those scenes, proving himself completely believable in hero roles.
Eagle Eye was a technologically nonsensical movie (precursor to the technological nonsense in Person of Interest), but LaBeouf played a character moving through the adult world, and he did it credibly.
Since then, LaBeouf has had his ups and downs, but none of the downs was the result of a lack of acting skill. This is a man who has paid his dues and earned a place as an adult star actor. Whatever craziness he's been into, and weird roles he's played, I think we're going to see LaBeouf emerge, as Robert Downey, Jr., did, as an excellent, respected actor.
It's a hard road, that move from child actor to adult. Sometimes sheer good-natured earnestness can get an actor through the transition -- it's not as if Drew Barrymore has developed much skill as an actor, but we just flat-out like her, even as other actors struggle to play scenes with the almost-nothing she contributes. I'm glad she has an adult career. She will never be Claire Danes. She doesn't have to be. Claire Danes has that job covered.
Shia LaBeouf never relied on kid-actor tricks to get him through performances, and so he's had very few bad habits to get rid of as he moves into adult roles.
So here's the big heresy of this review: I finally saw the first Transformers movie. It took me this long to see it because my expectations for a toy-based movie were very low.
But I hadn't realized that, with a screenplay by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, there was no way that the movie would suck like, say, Mario Brothers or The Flintstones or other misbegotten adaptations from other media. Any movie in which Orci and Kurtzman have a writing credit is going to be far better than it needed to be to get greenlit.
So the Star Trek reboot, Legend of Zorro, Cowboys & Aliens, Star Trek Into Darkness, and, of course, Transformers had way better scripts than we had any right to expect.
Here's the miracle: I actually cared about mechanical aliens from other planets who disguised themselves as cars and other motorized vehicles. I can't vouch for the later Transformers movies. But the first one, at least, was Not Dumb, which was borderline miraculous.
And Shia LaBeouf was very good in it. Nobody who was involved in that movie has anything to be ashamed of; and those critics who dismiss it as worthless don't know what they're talking about.
Call it a popcorn movie if you like -- a movie designed only to fill seats so theaters can make profits from concession sales -- but such movies only work if they're good enough to bring back repeat business. It's a good thing to have fun watching a movie. I'll take a good popcorn movie over arty twaddle any day of the week.
When Jeopardy! goes on vacation -- as they're doing right now -- they rerun tournaments from recent years. Now, most of the time, my wife and I watched those tournaments when they were new.
For instance, right now they're rerunning the Teachers Tournament from this past May. It hasn't been four months, and we watched the whole thing when it first aired.
Yet my wife and I have only the vaguest memories of any of the previous tournaments. We don't know who's going to win, though we often remember who gets into the finals.
Above all, we don't remember the answers. Sometimes it's maddening, because we know we've heard the right answer before. But we come to each show with pretty much the same store of knowledge we brought to them the first time. I don't instantly know, "OK, this one is Kalahari, and that one is Serengeti." I'm sitting there desperately trying to remember which one is near Botswana (Kalahari) and which one's in Tanzania and Kenya (Serengeti).
So when Bill Murray sits there in Groundhog Day reciting the answers to Jeopardy! questions, that isn't the second time he's watched the show. It's more like the fifteenth time. Or fiftieth.
But hey, it's a good thing that it's still fun to watch Jeopardy! reruns. It's not as if there's any other game show that comes close to Jeopardy!'s entertainment value.
I liked math classes. Right up to trigonometry, I liked them. Right up to algebra with two variables. Right up to solid geometry. And then I was done.
In all the years since those classes -- 39 of them, to be precise -- I have never once needed trigonometry, let alone calculus or any other upper-level math discipline.
In my opinion, you can't be an educated person unless you've learned some algebra, enough geometry to calculate how much flooring you need for your new deck, and the kind of logic required to construct a geometric proof.
Once you've got that, then for heaven's sake, take courses you actually like. If you like math, great. I want all engineers to take pleasure in, and perform perfectly, with mathematical reasoning and calculations. Ditto with architects and researchers who work with statistics. People should ride in airplanes, spaceships, ships, and cars designed exclusively by people who are Good At Math.
In college, I satisfied BYU's math requirement with two classes: Logic, from the philosophy department (probably the best, most useful class I ever took in college), and Structure of Math, a course offered for non-math-majors through the Honors Program.
Structure of Math was descriptive rather than practical. I learned what all kinds of math disciplines were about without ever having to do them. I learned to be a pretty good critic of statistics. (Are they measuring what they say they're measuring? Is this data worthless?) I know something about topology. About chaos theory. I know something about a lot of things at the boundaries of math.
And I remember what it felt like to enjoy math, back in junior high and the first couple of years of high school. I kind of miss those days, when I didn't know yet that I wasn't actually math-smart. I still thought I was smart in everything. (You don't reach 65 years of age with delusions like that still intact. I didn't even reach seventeen.)
If you have memories of math being kind of fun sometimes, then I bet you'll get as much pleasure as I did out of A Slice of Pi: All the Math You Forgot to Remember From School.
The author, Liz Strachan, spent 36 years teaching math in her hometown of Montrose, Scotland. But she is also a professional essayist and fiction writer. So she not only knows her stuff in math -- she knows how to write about it.
That's why Slice of Pi is so much better than that artsy literary hit Life of Pi. Don't get them confused, because Life of Pi is unreadable swill, while Slice of Pi is both fun and mind-stretching.
Mostly, the book is fun math oddities, like the rich Arab who tells his three sons, "Abdul, I am giving you half of my camels. Bashir, you may have one-third of my camels. And to you, Dilbar, I give one-ninth of my camels."
This sounds possible until you find out that the rich old man has exactly 17 camels. That's a prime number, so it can't be divided evenly by any number. And fractional camels have no value.
Here's where it gets fun, instead of sounding like homework. As the three sons wrestled with the problem, their uncle says, "I'll lend you one of my own camels. Now there are 18. Abdul's half now consists of nine camels, Bashir's third consists of six camels, and Dilbar's one-ninth consists of two. You have one camel left over, so you can return the camel I lent you."
Why does the math work with an extra camel -- yet you can give back that camel?
I would have been much more impressed with Solomon's wisdom if he had come up with that solution, instead of the split-the-baby solution -- which depended on the lying woman being so stupid that she didn't know that she should pretend to act like the real mother.
Slice of Pi isn't just cool problems with elegant and surprising solutions. It's got a lot of weird number series that crop up in nature (though I wish she had debunked the "golden mean," which doesn't show up half as often in nature as its fans claim).
There's also some history -- Euclid, Pythagoras, Archimedes, and others whose life and teachings are still interesting and relevant. (If the Pythagoreans sound wacky, they're no more ridiculous and irrational in their mathematical religion than the global warming enthusiasts.
Why are irrational numbers called "irrational"? When people are irrational, it means you can't reason with them. But irrational numbers aren't crazy. It has to do with the word "ratio." You can't make them into a ratio, a simple fraction. Thus, they cannot be ratio-nal. Nobody ever explained that to me in school. I just thought mathematicians were name-calling.
I warn you -- many times reading Slice of Pi you're likely to wish for a pencil so you can work out problems yourself. Of course, then you get the frustration that sometimes you get the wrong answer. Using her formula, I found that my birthday this year should fall on a Thursday. But it won't -- it's on a Wednesday. Was it my mistake? Or a typo in her formula?
Most of the time, though, her explanations provide a reminder of math I once knew, and when I start working stuff out -- in my head or on paper -- I remember math skills I once aced in school. It's still there. You just need reminding. And that's fun, too.
(Oh, by the way, I was reading along and then came to a chapterette entitled "Sin, Cos, and Tan." I knew those had to do with trig, and I closed the book. From here on, I figured, the book was going to be pointless.
(Instead, everything she has to say about trigonometry per se is complete in three pages, which you can skip, and move on to more of the good stuff.)
Truly, I wish no one ill. If an actor has a long-lasting gig that pays well, I'm happy.
Except when the gig is to play the same deliberately annoying character on commercials for the same product, over and over and over again.
When it's an animated character -- a certain gecko, a bunny that keeps going -- then I think it's OK to fantasize about shooting every last iteration of the creature. And believe me, I do.
But Flo, selling Progressive Insurance, has got to go. I can't hit fast-forward quickly enough when I hear her voice or see her face on my tv screen.
And fast-forward doesn't do it. I need a "Skip-Flo" button on my remote.
Stephanie Courtney, who portrays Flo, is doing a superb job of playing the character as written. Unfortunately, Flo was written to be obnoxious, the bore at a party -- the extrovert with no social skills who knows exactly how everyone else should behave and isn't shy about telling them.
I hope she has invested her money from the Flo commercials, and can spend the rest of her life picking and choosing roles. I hope she then resolves never to play a character remotely like Flo.
And since the advertising department at Progressive has no sense of when it's time to end one ad campaign and replace it with another, maybe Stephanie Courtney can decline to renew her contract when this one runs out. As a noble self-sacrifice for the public good. To reduce the amount of visceral hatred in the world.
By the way, when I said I wish no one ill, I have to place a limit on that. I wish both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump the disappointment of not winning the presidency.
At this point, that would require either the untimely passing of both candidates (though they're both getting elderly, so nature can run its course without any kind of intervention), or a third-party candidate winning enough states to throw the election into the House of Representatives.
That might be the achievement of Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, because that party is on the ballot in every state. Or it might be Evan McMullin, running as an Independent, who will be on less than a majority of state ballots -- but that could be enough, in a close election, to deny an electoral college majority to any candidate.
(McMullin can't get onto the North Carolina ballot -- the deadline was early in June. But in Louisiana it takes only a $500 fee to get on the ballot, in lieu of 5,000 signatures. And in Iowa, the McMullin movement gathered way more than the required 1500 signatures in time to meet the deadline. He's also on the ballot in Utah and Colorado, and there are still ten or so states whose ballots aren't yet closed.)
Suppose, as both Hillary and Trump continue to implode, providing more and more evidence that neither one has ever told us the truth about anything important, disgusted voters hand one state -- Oregon? Wisconsin? -- to the Libertarians, and a couple of western states to Evan McMullin (the best candidate this election cycle) -- let's say Utah and Colorado. That's 22 or 25 electoral votes. If the electoral votes for Democrats and Republicans are about even, the election is not decided.
Let's have none of this nonsense about how the person with the most popular votes should win, and if the House of Representatives votes "wrong" somebody was cheated. It's not about "fair." It's about choosing a sane, honest president, fit to govern this country for four years.
The game is played by the rules (yes, even in 2000, when the Supreme Court blocked Democrats and the Media from stealing Florida). When no candidate gets an electoral college majority, then the House of Representatives decides the election.
Only it isn't a simple majority vote in the House. Instead, each state's delegation decides how that state will vote, and then each state casts one vote.
That's right. There would be only fifty votes, and California, New York, and Texas would get exactly the same number of votes as Wyoming, Delaware, and Alaska. Welcome to the compromises that shaped the Constitution -- many of the Founding Fathers expected most elections to be decided in the House. That's how they wanted it to work.
Counting party affiliation of each state's delegation doesn't necessarily get you the probable result. There are plenty of Democrats in Congress who know perfectly well that Hillary is a liar and a crook and would rather vote for almost anyone else; as for Republicans, well, Trump has run against congressional Republicans, so exactly how much loyalty do they owe him, if he fails to win an electoral majority?
In 1824, it wasn't top vote-getter, Andrew Jackson, who won in the House; it was second-place candidate (out of four) John Quincy Adams. Now, Adams did not get a second term, and Jackson won the White House in 1828; the point is that the House does not have to pay any attention to popular vote or electoral college totals in making their decision. Voters are free to punish congressmen for their vote in the next election, of course.
But the House of Representatives could conceivably save us from the worst president of the United States ever -- which is the outcome offered to us by both major parties this election year.
Voting for a third-party candidate is not a wasted vote. No one can know which candidate a third-party candidate will hurt more. In 1968, arch-conservative George Wallace became the most recent third-party candidate to actually carry states and win their electoral college votes. Everyone "knew" that he was stealing votes from Republican Nixon; yet the blue-collar Democrats in the industrial states voted heavily for Wallace, costing Humphrey states the Democrats had expected to win. Nixon won after all.
Did Ross Perot cause George H.W. Bush to lose to Clinton in 1992? I don't think so. While he got the demographic that Trump is aiming for -- angry, protectionist, xenophobic -- those are as likely to be union members that the Democrats think they own as to be Tea-Party-style Republicans. (The real spoiler in 1992 was Pat Buchanan, who basically wrecked George H.W. Bush within the Republican Party during the primaries.)
What I'm saying is simple: If you can find a third-party or Independent candidate that you believe would make a better president than the Clown or the Crook, it isn't throwing away your vote to bestow it according to your conscience instead of treating it like covering the spread on an NFL game.
Suppose one of the major party candidates wins -- the most likely outcome -- but a record number of voters cast their ballots for Independents and Third Parties. No candidate can rationally claim a "mandate," though of course Trump will claim victory whether he wins or not. (Look for him to build a duplicate White House in Arlington, Virginia, and surround himself with people who pretend that he's governing America.)
Your vote for a third party candidate tells Congress and the new President who you really wanted, and if enough of us do that, they'll pay attention. They're not stupid. They may respond to lobbyist and fat-cat money, but they respond a lot more to voters -- when the voters send them a message.
Voting for Trump because you fear Hillary more, or vice versa, doesn't send either Trump or Hillary any message at all. But voting for Gary Johnson or Evan McMullin or Jill Stein (Green Party) or Darrell Castle (Constitution Party) or Chris Keniston (Veterans Party) will send a message, and Congress will try to decode it, especially if that third-party vote was heavy in their own district.
For us in North Carolina, that means writing in the candidate of our choice, if he or she isn't on the ballot, or voting for a non-Democrat or non-Republican, if there is such a ballot option.
Write-ins take special effort when you're voting -- you can't tap out your write-in on the screen in the voting booth. But even if it slows down the line, I urge you to vote your conscience. The only vote that's thrown away is a vote cast for someone you think would probably make a bad president.
Right now, I'm planning to write in Evan McMullin, because while I don't agree with him on everything, he comes a lot closer to aiming at the America I want to live in than anybody else.
Whoever you vote for, if you're voting for a candidate you really believe in, I think you've done your job as a citizen of this republic.
If I voted for either Trump or Hillary, to me that would be a thrown-away vote. A vote for garbage.
That's my message to both major parties: Reform yourselves so that decent human beings get nominated every year, instead of these crap candidates you foisted on us in 2016.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
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