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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 8, 2018

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

Oscar, Night Moves, Hair, Phenomena

Sunday night, and my wife was getting home from a trip to join with her parents in celebrating her mom's 90th birthday. Our two daughters also flew from Seattle and Los Angeles to join her, and they had a great couple of days. I'm glad I wasn't there because I would have spoiled it just by being underfoot.

Anyway, my wife flew home Sunday, braving a heavy snowstorm in Salt Lake City that delayed flights. But we always arrange long layovers in Atlanta, so being two hours late meant she only had two hours until her Greensboro flight, which arrived right on schedule.

So she got home and gave me an exhilarating report on everything she and our daughters did, and how her mom responded, and all of that. Then we watched one of our recorded episodes of Jeopardy! and scored pretty well as we clicked all our right answers.

It wasn't until the next morning that I realized that the news was full of who won the Oscars and who said what and who did what, and I realized: I have left the Oscars so far behind that I don't even know when they're happening.

We used to have big Oscar parties. Maybe we will again. Because I still care about high quality in the arts and believe that it should be recognized publicly. And the Oscars are still, despite flaws, the highest honor that film people can receive.

So one of the worst, stupidest films of the year won best picture. But with so many nominees, you can win if you get all the votes of the suckers for pretentious bushwa, and all the votes for real quality are evenly divided among the other nominees.

Darkest Hour is still the best movie of last year, with the unnominated Baby Driver in second place. If you think otherwise, I don't even find that information interesting. Because I didn't care when other people told me that American Beauty or Out of Africa and Million Dollar Baby were brilliant. I hated those movies for very different reasons, and your opinion won't change my hate to love or my contempt to respect.

Hey, I'm the guy who thinks Citizen Kane was an empty, pretentious vanity project that is worthless in almost every way a film can be worthless. Since everybody of importance treats it as the god of their idolatry, I'm obviously an idiot, so you can ignore me completely. You won't be alone in that.

Oh, yeah. Chicago and The English Patient were each kwap in their own way. And I don't know if The Last Emperor was any good because I fell asleep just taking the DVD out of the package.

Contrarian though I am, the movie I think of as the best of all time, A Man for All Seasons, also won an Oscar. As did The Apartment, Oliver!, Godfather Part II, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky, Patton, Ordinary People, Amadeus, Driving Miss Daisy, Unforgiven, Forrest Gump, Slumdog Millionaire, Argo, Birdman, An American in Paris, Rebecca, It Happened One Night, and Gone with the Wind.

But we could probably come up with a list twice that long of movies that were nominated and lost, but which are still among the best ever made. And maybe a list even longer of movies that weren't nominated and should have been.

So who cares of a few awful or tedious movies win now and then?

It's all a matter of opinion.

Look, I know that if you care about the Oscars, you either watched the show or you already know the results. So I'm not reporting here, I'm commenting, and I'm not going to comment on everything because, you know, ink costs money.

Not my money, but ... somebody's money.

If Gary Oldman hadn't won Best Actor for his performance as Churchill in Darkest Hour, it would be time to give up on the Oscars entirely. But he won it, and so they redeemed themselves from getting fooled by pretentious twaddle in Best Picture.

And Frances McDormand won Best Actress fo Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Now, Three Billboards might be just as pretentious as any other film nominated, but it was actually smart and honest and funny and devastating.

It also won the best acting Oscar of the night. Best Supporting Actor went to Sam Rockwell for his unforgettable, wide-ranging, deep and real performance as the racist cop in Three Billboards. Rockwell has long been one of America's finest actors. His performance in a great (but unnominated) film, Mr. Right, is magnificent. If his only roles ever were the ones in Mr. Right and Three Billboards, he would deserve to be remembered as long and admiringly as James Dean. And, unlike Peter O'Toole, one of his few peers, he actually got an Oscar during his lifetime (O'Toole was nominated eight times, never won).

Another well-deserved Oscar was Best Makeup, which was given to the miraculous Churchill makeup that Gary Oldman wore during his astonishingly good performance. His performance would have worked no matter what, but when the makeup is the best makeup job ever, it means nothing would distract us from Oldman's performance.

Nothing about Coco made me want to see it -- I have no appreciation at all for the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday -- but everything I've heard about it says I need to swallow my lack of interest and see it anyway. You don't win Best Animated Feature without doing something right.

I was delighted that Blade Runner 2049 got the Cinematography Oscar, because that was such a well-written, well-performed, and, apparently, well shot movie that it would have been wrong if it went away empty-handed.

*

That's it about the Oscars per se -- and aren't you relieved to know what I thought? Now you can sleep peacefully again instead of waking up in the middle of the night thinking, What did Uncle Orson think about the Oscars?

However, on Monday when I was chatting with Rusty Humphries for our weekly podcast "We Review Everything," I hadn't yet heard all the Oscar results. I thought of just bringing up an Oscar list online while we conversed, but I'm glad I decided to print it out instead.

Because when you're recording a podcast, you don't want to have some obnoxious ad or scene from newscaster loudly interrupt things, and every American site that I saw on the first couple of Google pages immediately began with a loud, loud, and -- oh yes -- really stupid ad, leading to an even stupider clip from a stupid news show with smiling empty-headed people chatting about the Oscars.

Now, I know that Rusty and I were going to chat about the Oscars, but by definition, Rusty and I aren't smiling empty-headed people. I don't smile and he's not empty-headed.

Anyway, I only found a site that didn't blast noise when I got to The Guardian at www.theguardian.com. Apparently it takes a British newspaper to give me a list without a noisy ad or clip. Who knew that the Brits still trusted people to be able to read?

I was able to print it out from The Guardian and refer to the paper list as Rusty and I conversed. Paper never plays loud music or yells at me.

And for those who will say, Why didn't you just turn down the volume? my answer is simple. My computer setup uses the same control for my headphone as for the computer's volume. So the only way for me to kill the interruptions from loud websites is if I also can't hear anything Rusty says. Hard to have a conversation that way.

And yes, that means I'm cheap and lazy because I haven't arranged for a better setup. But you know what? If I had a better computer rig, I wouldn't have been able to provide eight paragraphs of griping to delight you in this week's column.

*

OK, if you've been reading my column for a while, you know that I love Jonathan Kellerman's series of mysteries about child psychologist Alex Delaware, who serves as a consultant (i.e., sidekick) to L.A. detective Milo Sturgis.

And what makes great mystery novels even better is when they're read to you by John Rubinstein. The actor who originated the title role of Pippin in New York decades ago, Rubinstein, all by himself, gives you a full-cast recording of the entire book. He offers a perfect performance of every role, young or old, male or female, with the accent from whatever country or state they're from.

There are only a few narrators in his league, so if you've been really good, reward yourself by listening to the audiobook of Night Moves, Kellerman's latest Alex Delaware novel.

Every now and then, Kellerman gives us a character so personally repulsive that we kind of hope somebody in the book will do us the favor of killing him. Then, after he's dead, we begin to view him as something of a tragic figure, because being socially clueless is not a reason for a person to be killed.

Because Kellerman really was a first-rate shrink, beloved by co-workers wherever he practiced (I learned that from people who've known him, not from his own website), he knows how to create powerful, accurate, devastating, yet loving portraits of people making each other's lives miserable in a dysfunctional family. So when good things start happening to them and they start to heal, it makes the story all the better.

Best of all, for someone like me who is weary to the bone of serial killer novels, the killers in this novel are not random in picking their victims. They are tied to their victims in clear, discoverable ways ... if you know where to look.

It's a satisfying mystery where, partly because of the great performance by Rubinstein, you can keep all the characters straight in your mind. That's not easy to do.

Best of all, it's a moving and believable story of people in distress. Even if you don't think you like mysteries, read it as a novel about human life, and it will still be a good literary experience.

*

It's nearly two in the morning and I have to read one more student story before I teach tomorrow, so let me wrap up this week's column with a couple of observations that you may find useful.

It has been a long time since I've heard anyone but a scientist make the correct plural vs. singular choices with this word:

Phenomena.

More and more people are treating "phenomena" as a singular. And not the way we treat "data," where it's a soupy singular like fish, so there might be one item or many. We say, "The data's right there," and nobody complains anymore that "data' is a plural, so it should be "The data are right there."

If you say it "correctly" you sound like a pedantic twit. The language has changed a little and data now takes the singular verb. Live with it.

However, "phenomena" is not felt as plural at all. People constantly say things like, "That was quite a phenomena" or "A phenomena like that doesn't come along very often."

Oh, sure, I know, that sounded completely wrong to you and you would never say that. But apparently there's a test somewhere that requires you, before you're allowed on the air as a talking head on a news show, to prove that you think "phenomena" is the singular.

And what makes it even worse -- amazingly worse -- tooth-pullingly worse -- is that the same people are now starting to use the real singular, "phenomenon," as the plural. "Those were such amazing phenomenon, Jim!" or "These singers are real phenomenon!"

No. No and no. I refuse to accept this language change without digging in my heels for as long as I can. It is one phenomenon, and several or many phenomena. These phenomena are amazing; that one event was such an amazing phenomenon!

If you have children who want to go into broadcasting, do Uncle Orson a favor and drill them incessantly, as children, till they can't use "phenomena" as a singular noun or "phenomenon" as a plural, not without causing PTSD.

Please. Do it for me. I'm old, and after I die, you can do what you want. I won't be listening -- I promise, they don't give you time in hell to check the grammar of people who aren't dead yet.

But now, while I still might hear it, please, please get this one word, of all words, sorted out between singular and plural.

After all, I gave you "data", didn't I? Meet me halfway on this.

*

And here are my comments from Quora when somebody asked the general question: What was your least favorite "rite of passage." My answer to this is a gripe I've had for decades, but there was nobody I could complain to. Naturally, I seized upon this opportunity and here's the answer I wrote on Quora:

Admittedly, sex education and health education were kind of an afterthought in the 1960s, when I was in junior high and high school. Taught by coaches -- and not coaches who won a lot of games, either -- very little was explained.

But your body does what it does, regardless of your level of preparation. Physical maturity happens when it happens, and I was fine with it, because some aspects of it were kind of fun. Though it took me ten years or more to get back a good singing voice (boy sopranos don't fare well during puberty), but it eventually happened. And reproduction, when it happened, went well enough that I'm glad to know the resulting children.

However, my least favorite part of this rite of passage was the growth of hair without any regard for my preferences as to location or quantity. I would have liked a beard or mustache, but my dad gave me a razor on my sixteenth birthday, and I used it the second time on my seventeenth birthday and the third time on my eighteenth birthday. I had so little facial hair that during my two years in Brazil, I shaved only about once a week with a dry safety razor. I knew each of my facial hairs by name, and so shaving was an easy visit with friends.

It's all the other hair that was just stupid. I didn't get all that much; I've never had to wax my back, thank you very much. But if I had no hair except in appropriate places on my head, that would have been fine with me. Nature just doesn't check with me enough to ask me if this is what I want.

That was in my teens. If my high school sex and health education was sorely lacking, it's nothing compared to the complete lack of preparation for getting old. There I was, at age 48, running along the street feeling very proud of being able to do 5K in the same day, when I realized that I kept brushing a hair out of my eye, and the hair on my head was all so short that it couldn't possibly be any of my top-of-the-head hairs.

It was annoying and puzzling enough that I stopped, figuring it was a loose hair that somehow didn't respond to being brushed away. But I could never find it, out on the street.

It wasn't till the next time I had a haircut that my stylist (Hi, Nancy!) brought the scissors down perilously near to my eye and clipped something. When I asked, "What was THAT?" she replied, "You had an eyebrow hair so long that it must have been getting in your eye sometimes."

My eyebrow?

I went home and did an eyebrow self-examination. Sure enough, I had wild eyebrow hairs popping out at every angle. My eyebrows had always been disciplined and modest, lining up as they should. Now, suddenly, I had flyaway eyebrows like my terrifying Great-uncle Major, who, besides gleefully crushing children's tender hands in his massive grip, also had eyebrow hairs that poked out every which way.

Mine are now as white as his were, as randomly long, and as undisciplined. At least I still don't crush people's hands, especially not children's.

I already had a hate-hate relationship with my hair, but this was just the last straw. No, I didn't wish for the hairlessness associated with chemo, if only because if you're that hairless, people get all concerned and you have to have conversations with them.

But look, if my eyebrows got wiry and random, why couldn't the hair on the top of my head do the same?

I don't have male pattern baldness. Hair still grows where it always has on my head, except for the slightly receding hairline I acquired as I dredged wads of hair from the shower drain in my late twenties. That process stopped long ago, so I didn't think of myself as bald until somebody took a picture of me at a book signing, when I was bent over somebody's copy of my precious tome, and in that picture, viewing myself from the top, I looked more than a little like Humpty Dumpty.

In the mirror, I still see a full head of hair. But I know better now. As long as I stand up, shorter people don't know. A few very tall friends, however, no doubt were simply too polite to point out that I might as well shave up there.

But I won't shave my head. I have friends who do and they look great. That's because their heads aren't square. I just clip it short and refuse to allow any kind of combover. Let my head be what it is.

If the hair on top of my head is determined to thin out, why didn't the same message get to my eyebrows?

Or why didn't all that rampant eyebrow growth spread to my sideburns, which don't exist. I mean really. Nothing. Ever. The hair in front of my ears still stops exactly where it did when I was five. No beard along my jaw or cheeks, except for a single tuft on the left side only.

I keep imagining: If I were a member of a culture that required men to remain unshaven, letting their beards grow as God intended, they would all think I was a complete, scornful heretic. My one patch of jaw beard would look like I was mocking them.

So … rites of passage. They've done me little good, when it comes to follicular adornment. The hairs I kind of hoped for, I didn't get; the ones I had no idea were even coming, came with an unseemly eagerness. And since I'm only sixty-six, and half my male ancestors lived to be very old (the other half were already dead at my age), I might still have up to thirty years to find out what else my hair is going to do.

It's up to no good, whatever it has planned.

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