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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 10, 2017

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


Despicable, Outer Banks, Making Movies

I wasn't going to see Despicable Me 3 because, you know, Despicable Me 2.

But we have three grandchildren visiting with us, all under the age of 12. So now I've seen Despicable Me 3 and I'm happy to tell you that, compared with grinding your head into a rough concrete wall for an hour, Despicable Me 3 is better.

Which is more than could be said for Despicable Me 2 or the Minions movie.

The saving grace of all the Despicable Me movies is that Steve Carell plays Gru, and Carell classes up everything he's in. He's one of the few American screen actors who can do voices -- accents, dialects, and actual characters. This means that he is especially suited to voice work in animated movies -- a branch of acting in which most American actors range from untrained to dreadful.

As a case in point, I recently tried to listen to the audio version of three books by noted performers, read by the authors: Paula Poundstone's The Totally Unscientific Study of the Search for Human Happiness; Kevin Hart's I Can't Make This Up: Life Lessons; and Jeffrey Tambor's Are You Anybody?

Usually, with a book by a comedian or comic actor or, you know, any actor at all, you expect they'll be the best or only possible reader of their material.

Why would you ever listen to an audio version of one of Woody Allen's books, like Without Feathers, if Allen himself were not reading it? Nobody could bring off that mix of New York accent and self-deprecating wit, as proven by John Cusack's impossibly inept but well-meant performance of the Woody Allen part in the movie Bullets over Broadway. (Cusack is a wonderful actor, but he couldn't find the music of Allen's writing.)

Who could read a book by Steve Martin, like Cruel Shoes or Born Standing Up, except Steve Martin? Et cetera.

But now imagine listening to an entire book by Gilbert Gottfried, in his weird screamy voice; or an audiobook read by Emo Philips, in his spaced-out whine.

Now, with Paula Poundstone, anybody who knows her comedy -- and if you don't, why are you buying the book? -- is prepared for her comically leaden voice. Except that Poundstone's faux cheerful delivery becomes grating very quickly, when the material is bad, and alas, it takes only a few minutes to realize that The Totally Unscientific ... Search for Human Happiness has little wisdom to impart, and also isn't funny. Far from saving the weak material, her voice makes it impossible to keep listening.

I gave up on Kevin Hart's I Can't Make This Up just as quickly. He doesn't so much narrate the book as babble for the pleasure of hearing himself talk. But to the audience member listening in a car or while exercising (some of the usual venues for audiobook listening), hearing him try desperately to be funny very quickly becomes embarrassing.

I had to switch away to another book and figure that I'd see Hart again in a movie, where somebody else gives him his lines and an editor can leave any empty ad libs on the cutting room floor.

The real shocker for me was Jeffrey Tambor's reading of Are You Anybody? Tambor was absolutely wonderful as Hank Kingsley, the insecure sidekick to Gary Shandling in The Larry Sanders Show.

And if you're too young to remember Larry Sanders (which ended in 1998), you'd still recognize Tambor immediately, even if you didn't know from where, because he's been a strong character actor in movie after movie after tv show.

So, just as I look forward to any book by Bruce Campbell (a new one is due soon) and loved Charles Grodin's and David Niven's memoirs, I thought that a Jeffrey Tambor book would be wonderful.

The shock in listening to Are You Anybody? was that Tambor reads like a second grader.

You know what I mean -- a word-by-word reading in that over-enunciated, over-pronounced voice where the word "a" is pronounced like the name of the letter instead of "uh," and all the phrasing disappears in a monotonous manner of speech that has none of the phrasing, none of the music, none of the meaning of natural speech.

Where was the director of the audiobook, who should have taken Tambor aside and given him a short course in how to narrate an audiobook -- which starts with this: You have to act is if you were a real person really saying these words to another real person. You have to put some thought and effort into it.

People often don't realize that audiobook narration is a very separate art from stage, screen, and even voice acting in videogames and animated films.

You can't read as if you were sounding out the words like a second-grader (I'm being so unfair to most second-graders), or even as if you were reading from a corporate annual report to an audience of stockholders. You have to read like a person, not a performer.

But nobody had that talk with Tambor, or if they did, he either paid no attention or didn't understand what he was doing wrong. Whatever the reason, Tambor's reading technique was unlistenably bad.

Maybe I could have gotten used to it (well, no, nobody could), but the content of the book's opening was also unbearably bad.

Basically, he starts out by telling the "fascinating" (not) story of how he came to write this book.

No, Mr. Tambor. That is not how you open a book, even if you're a wonderful celebrity whom everyone knows and loves. All such openings are identical, as in: "There I was, not writing a book, and after this or that conversation and a contract involving more money than I expected, I was writing a book, and now here it is."

Boring. Also dumb.

So not only did he not have a director for the audiobook, he also didn't have an editor for the printed book. This poor man of limited writing and reading ability was left on his own to expose his deficiencies.

His only saving grace is that the book opens so badly, in print and audio form, that nobody will finish it and those who began it will quickly forget it. No harm, no foul.

I almost never review a book that I haven't finished, but in these three cases, the point is that I abandoned the painful experience of listening to these audiobooks. You don't have to watch a whole movie in order to decide to walk out, and you don't have to listen to a whole audiobook to give up on it, and it's fair for a reviewer to tell why.

Maybe there are fabulously funny or wonderful stories later in all three books. Maybe if I read the print version I could skim my way through to the good bits.

But I'm nearly 66 years old. There is zero chance that I am less than two-thirds through my life, and I long since stopped feeling the slightest anxiety about quitting a book that actively repels me.

None of these writers committed literary atrocities like first-person present-tense narrative, the mark of arty writers who don't actually want volunteer readers. These performers simply didn't know how to write, or read, a book.

(By the way, I actually like Gilbert Gottfried and Emo Philips, including their weird voices, because they're often funny. And Paula Poundstone was one of my favorites until she tried to do politics a few elections ago. Not funny and not smart, a tragic combination.)

Which brings me back to Steve Carell and the other voice actors in Despicable Me 3. We've come a long way since Walt Disney, needing a mouse voice, used his own tone-deaf falsetto to perform the lines of Mickey Mouse.

Today, any sensible director of an animated film would cast the voices, not by putting friends in front of a mike because, like, who cares; and not by casting the biggest-name stars that would do it, because nobody goes to animated movies to hear the vocal performance of a star.

Instead, directors of animated films find excellent voice actors -- people with the skill to be expressive and to create a believable, interesting character.

Sometimes the actor uses his regular voice and it works, like Eddie Murphy as the donkey in the Shrek movies. Not for a second was it anything but Eddie Murphy saying the donkey's lines -- but that was fine, because Murphy acted the role and he made those lines funny and believable in the story.

But Steve Carell works several levels up from that. I never once thought, during Despicable Me 3, "Steve Carell is sure doing a good job as Gru and his long-lost twin brother, Dru."

On the contrary, I had no idea who was doing any of the voices; they simply became the voices of the characters.

This means that not just Steve Carell, but also Kristen Wiig, Trey Parker, and all the other voice actors set aside whatever makes their voices distinctive as themselves, and instead spoke as the character might speak.

Which has been a ridiculously roundabout way of saying that the actors in Despicable Me 3 do a very, very good job.

And the writers certainly did a better job with the third movie than they did with the second, because there were quite a few funny moments.

It's just that the story was impossible to care about, even for a second. It was the long-lost twin plot, only, get this, they come from a criminal family. And when the parents split up, the dad took one and the mom took the other.

You know, like Parent Trap. And if you find yourself wishing you were listening to Hayley Mills sing "Let's get together, yeah yeah yeah," you're not alone. Because Parent Trap -- even the remake with Lindsay Lohan and Natasha Richardson -- had a story with some heart.

Despicable Me 3 pretends it has a heart. It goes through the motions, with Gru putting the children to bed, and Lucy (Wiig) getting all sentimental when one of the kids calls her "Mom."

But there is no scene or page or speech in this script where any character amounts to more than a place-holder, a stereotype. Nothing individuates them.

Which is why the actors and the artists and animators cannot raise this movie above a C+ level. Once you commit to animating an empty script, you've already lost the battle.

So here's the final word on Despicable Me 3: If you have youngsters who want to see it, and they must have adult supervision, you will find that the experience of watching it will not induce nausea or thoughts of suicide, like watching Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius.

However, my wife and I both spent frequent short passages of the movie asleep.

You know that feeling when you're driving along and you suddenly wake up, but you're relieved to realize that you were asleep less than a second and so you didn't drive into another lane and kill somebody or yourself?

Well, when you wake up during Despicable Me 3 and realize that you didn't miss more than a second or two, you won't be relieved, you'll be disappointed -- because sleeping for five minutes at a time would really shorten the movie. It's already only 90 minutes long, but several five-minute naps could shave a blessed fifteen or twenty minutes off that total.

*

For the first decade-and-a-half after we moved to North Carolina, we adopted the local custom of renting a house or condo at the beach for a week or two every summer. At first we used a friend's house in Ocean Isle, and then participated in a time-share condo near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

This made sense because both Ocean Isle and Myrtle Beach are an hour-and-a-half closer to Greensboro than the Outer Banks. And when our kids were young, the warm, more placid waters of the bight of the Carolina coast made everything feel safer and more manageable.

But after a difficult family event in Myrtle Beach in 2000 made it impossible for us to want to go back there for a while, we started visiting the Outer Banks, and it changed the whole meaning of going to the beach.

Because the Outer Banks are still under construction. Not by human builders of roads, bridges, and houses, but by the Atlantic Ocean and the underlying structure of the continental shelf.

We've ridden out a hurricane and seen how storms and currents carve new channels, so that, in order to survive, the coastal towns have to get funding to dredge channels that are trying to fill up with sand, and build up artificial dunes to shield areas that are trying to create a new inlet.

It's a constant war between people and the ocean, and come on, let's get serious: The ocean is going to win.

But for now, the beach life is kind of wonderful. And we understand those who choose to live on the Outer Banks. But there's always the possibility of a whole island disappearing. We know this because it has happened several times in the last few hundred years, when literate people were there to observe it.

Why do I know this? Because of a book by David Blevins, a wonderful nature photographer: North Carolina's Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea, and Sky.

We don't usually buy coffee-table books because of the inconvenience. We don't actually have a coffee table and so any oversized art book can only be read in the kitchen. And even then, once you've looked at all the pictures, you might as well put it on a shelf somewhere because you're rarely going to want to get it out again.

But I made an exception for this book because a friend of mine wrote to me about her encounter with David Blevins. He was working on this book -- it would eventually take five years -- and his approach was different from that of most nature photographers. "The more common approach," said my friend, "is to take thousands of pictures, see what you've got, and put the best ones in a book."

But Blevins comes at it from the other direction. He plans the project and comes up with "a list of the pictures he needs to complete it." And one of the pictures he wanted was an image of a particular bird, a male painted bunting, "in the first week after it had arrived from its long migration.

"He knew that, rather than taking a well-earned rest, the males immediately begin choosing their territories (roughly three acres) and staking claim by spending all day on a circuit of the perimeter, stopping at frequent intervals to sing their claim-staking song."

Yeah, I do that, too.

Blevins heard from some mutual acquaintances that my friend had some painted buntings that returned year after year to their property on Bald Head. He came to my friend and asked if he could camp out on their deck for the week the buntings were expected to return, so that he could observe the first male the moment he arrived, spy out its singing circuit, and set up for the exact spot that would give him several opportunities to take the picture he wanted.

My friend writes, "As a rank amateur in photography, I still refer to 'taking' pictures. David taught me what professionals mean by 'making' pictures. Knowing what images he wants, he goes to great lengths to determine how to get them."

So all the pictures in North Carolina's Barrier Islands are quite wonderful, because Blevins knows his craft and his art. He knows what the camera can do and his mind's eye knows what he wants it to do.

And he knows the islands.

That's why this book is a thing so rare as to actually be kind of weird: It's a book of photographs that's worth reading.

Yeah, that's right. You don't just flip the pages, looking at the pictures and glancing at the captions. There's text, there's a story, and it's the natural history of the Outer Banks along with a few dollops of human history added in.

Stories like the migration of Bodie Island and the formation of the dunes at Kitty Hawk are well worth reading -- and so is everything else.

The trouble is, how can you read them? Certainly not lying on your back in bed -- I think if you fell asleep reading and this book fell over on your face, you might need some nose work done.

So I bought the book twice -- as a book of pages between hard covers, and as a Kindle e-book.

I wanted to see the pictures fullsize, on the page, so I could appreciate Blevins's art.

And I wanted to read the text, which comes from his years of experience photographing the Outer Banks and its nonhuman inhabitants and from good research into the geology, geography, oceanography, and flora and fauna of the place.

For that, the Kindle version works spendidly. It has all the pictures, but of course they're no larger than your Kindle reader will allow, which in my case was the Kindle app on a Samsung Android mini-tablet.

Because the Kindle app tries to display the pictures as large as the screen allows, the caption is usually on the page after the picture, which can cause a lot of flipping back and forth.

But that's OK because I got the chance to really look at the pictures in the printed book. On the Kindle app, I read the text.

Blevins isn't just a photographer. He's a terrific writer, making the natural history of the islands perfectly clear -- and rather thrilling to think about. Naturally, there are warnings about what human development and use of the islands is doing, but this isn't an Al Gore effort to make you feel so guilty you stop going to the Outer Banks.

Instead, Blevins simply reports on the various mistakes we've made in how we handle the islands, interfering with their natural movement as storm surges carve new inlets and fill in old ones over time.

I was surprised at how recently some of the inlets were formed -- and to realize that some of the more prominent inlets require frequent dredging because nature wants those inlets closed.

Humans have been interfering for only a relatively short time, and with only limited success. If any of the prophecies of the global warming people ever come true, all those efforts will be overwhelmed, because rising ocean levels would push the islands back, closer to the mainland.

When and if that happens -- and there's no reason to think it won't, since global warming has been happening since 1850, and the only argument is about the degree to which human activity influences it -- a lot of beachfront property is going to be miles out to sea, and all the buildings on it will be flotsam in the Atlantic.

Which is fine, in my opinion. As long people aren't in the houses when they're taken by the sea, it's just nature doing its job. Everybody should know that when you build a million-dollar house on what amounts to a sand bar, it's only a temporary structure.

You know, like a really, really expensive tent with plumbing and electricity. It's not going to be there forever.

Meanwhile, reading Blevins's book is a great way to gain an understanding of what's going on with the Outer Banks and the creatures who live there.

And just in case we start thinking we've got nature beat, it's good to remember that the accidental severing of a power line that ran underground -- er, undersand -- along the length of the islands cut off all electricity to many towns for several weeks this summer.

It wasn't caused by a storm, just a mistake, but it still took a serious amount of work to replace that line with one that runs above the sand. The power's back on as of August 3rd, and the evacuation order has been lifted, though the damage to the already-fragile tourist economy of the islands will be hard to repair.

But I bet the birds and shellfish and other wildlife of the islands didn't think of this as a disastrous summer. In fact, they got to relax a little, and some of the birds that make their nests on open sand flats had a couple of weeks of respite from human interference.

If you love North Carolina's Outer Banks, you'll enjoy reading North Carolina's Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea, and Sky, by David Blevins.

And you'll also enjoy looking at the amazing pictures.

*

For many years I thought the best book about making movies was Frank Capra's The Name above the Title: An Autobiography. That book worked so well because Capra was a good writer -- and because he directed several of the most beloved films in Hollywood history.

So anecdotes and narratives involved in making films like It's a Wonderful Life, A Hole in the Head, Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet John Doe, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take It with You, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and It Happened One Night feel like a course in filmmaking -- as well as a history of how the studio system worked in its glory days.

But I recently read a memoir that really is a course in directing films in this post-studio era: Sidney Lumet's Making Movies. While Capra's book is out of print (though I easily found used copies available, and there are free [pirated] versions on .pdf), Lumet's is readily available in print or on Kindle.

You may not know Sidney Lumet's name, partly because most of us pay far more attention to the star actors than to the director. But his career, beginning with the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men, included work almost universally acclaimed as excellent and influential.

For instance, literary films like A View from the Bridge, The Sea Gull, and Long Day's Journey into Night; a thriller like Fail-Safe; and such other beloved films as Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, and The Verdict.

So I think we can safely say, when it comes to directing movies, that Sidney Lumet, who died in 2011, knew what he was talking about.

Drawing upon his experience in directing these and many other films, Lumet takes us through the whole process of directing a film. Even if you have no ambition to make movies, it's still fascinating to know what goes into creating even bad movies, let alone good ones, and how many people are absolutely vital to the success of any film.

Because he's an engaging writer, the book is always clear and entertaining. And any time you can really enjoy a book and come out the other end of it knowing way more than you did when you started, that's an experience worth having.

There are also observations about the many famous people Lumet worked with over the years, from Katharine Hepburn to Paul Newman to Al Pacino, but it's rarely about personalities -- always Lumet talks about their art as seriously as he talks about his own.

None of this "actors are cattle" nonsense that another famous film director is quoted as saying. In Lumet's world, almost all actors are artists worthy of respect as they do a hard job.

Just look at the cast of his first feature as a director, 12 Angry Men, the story of a jury (in the all-male-jury days) struggling to come up with a verdict in a court case: Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Edward Binns, Jack Warden, Henry Fonda, Ed Begley (not Jr.), and Robert Webber.

Some of those names are well known from their long and distinguished careers in film and television, but I promise that if you look up pictures of even the ones you never heard of before, you'll almost certainly think, "Oh, him," because Lumet was given a dream team of amazingly skilled actors.

But what Lumet's memoir makes clear is that while the work he did with the actors was important to the success of the film, like having a couple of weeks of rehearsal of the movie in time order on a mockup set, the director's mind is also working on many other things, not only before and after the shooting of the film, but also while it's being shot.

As with so many other jobs, once you find out just how hard it is, you're glad to be doing the job you have now, because at least you know you can do it.

I really enjoyed reading this book by an artist who was a true master of his craft. I hope that if you care about movies, you'll read this book; and when you're done, get a copy of Frank Capra's The Name above the Title and read it, too. It's a lot more fun and a lot less work than actually directing movies.


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