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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 23, 2005

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


Carson, Fantasia, Rumpole, Clinton, Precinct 13, and shopping carts

I hadn't realized Johnny Carson was so old. It feels like only a few years ago that he was bidding us goodbye from the Tonight Show. How did he get to be 79 years old so quickly?

I used to be an inveterate watcher of late-night TV. For thirty years, I took Carson for granted. He made it look so easy.

Only in retrospect does it become clear how delicately he kept the perfect balance.

Now we have Leno, so pathetically eager to be funny that he barely listens to his guests and his "conversation" is just gags or setups for gags. Nothing means anything, and even if we laugh, there's nothing to talk about the next morning at work.

While Letterman lost his balance in another direction. His "humor" has moved solidly into one ideological camp, as he relentlessly savaged President George W. Bush from the start of the 2000 election season until the present day.

It became so hateful and mean-spirited that I've stopped watching Letterman entirely -- after being a devoted fan of his for many years.

Letterman and Leno aren't dumb. Letterman is undoubtedly still very entertaining to the kind of young and urban viewers who enjoy sneering at people from the red parts of the country. And people who have just graduated from Jerry Springer undoubtedly find Leno's "bits" really funny and fresh.

But Carson managed to have important content sometimes, with real conversations, while entertaining us constantly. He never lost his soul; he never lost his way.

It's Leno's and NBC's fault that Carson retired when he did; but he wasn't going to live forever.

I just can't help but think that America would be a better country today if Carson had been at the desk right up to the day he died.

That's very selfish of me, of course. I'm glad Carson had more than a decade to relax and enjoy a happy marriage and a well-deserved retirement.

But I missed him so much during the intervening years that I can hardly miss him more today.

*

I wish Fantasia had made a different album from Free Yourself, her first full-length cd.

Only a few of the songs on this album give her a chance to show her great power as a singer.

I'm not referring to her voice alone, though it's a powerful instrument.

I'm talking about the way she can find the heart of a song and bring it to life.

To do that, you have to have a song. Most of the cuts on this cd aren't songs at all. They're pop/hip-hop, a humdrum patter over a rhythmic, repetitive semi-musical background.

Few of these "songs" have anything that rises to the level of "lyrics." It's just a gush of words that would be a rather boring conversation if you had to sit and listen to somebody say them.

I know, I know, they're all heartfelt expressions of things she cares about.

But I believe songs should do things that can't be done just as well in an email.

There are lots of singers recording "songs" like these, and for most of them, it's fine because that's the best they can do.

You don't need that much of a voice to sing them as well as they can be sung.

Basically, you just turn on the rhythm synthesizer on a cheap keyboard and chant.

But Fantasia has a remarkable gift. A voice that only comes along once a decade -- if we're lucky.

So it makes me sad that this is all she's using it for.

There's certainly an audience for this kind of music. Fantasia will make money singing it. And certainly it lets her say what she wants to say.

That's the problem. She could just say it. Anybody could.

So go ahead, Fantasia. Make as many of these as you want. A certain subset of your fans will be thrilled.

But now and then, couldn't you cut an album of standards? Songs that require you, that beg you, to use that fantastic voice of yours, that fresh and intelligent way you interpret great lyrics?

*

Mystery short stories usually don't work -- there isn't time enough to develop a really compelling dilemma to be unwound.

But John Mortimer's Rumpole books have proven again and again that it can be done -- and brilliantly.

For those who have been following the Rumpole books, I need only to mention that the new one is called Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders.

Much of the book consists of Rumpole's charming memoir of his legendary first murder case, which he defended without a "leader."

And if you haven't been reading the Rumpole books, this is as good a volume to start with as any.

Another favorite mystery writer is Jan Burke, who returns with a new Irene Kelly novel, Bloodlines.

Like the Rumpole, Burke's new book keeps bouncing back and forth between different time frames. Irene Kelly's mentors when she first started out as a reporter were intimately involved in a multiple murder and kidnapping before Irene even dreamed about journalism.

Burke handles the time flow deftly (though she clumsily puts a long opening section in italics, which is invariably a mistake, since it's harder to see and readers usually skip or skim when they see large swaths of italics). And she makes us care about a lot of characters.

It's a good enough book that you forgive her for having a villain who is implausible in his relentlessness. Good book. Check it out.

*

Dick Morris's book about Bill Clinton -- Because He Could -- is much better than his jeremiad about Hillary (Rewriting History).

I think the difference is that Morris liked Bill Clinton and worked closely with him for many years, whereas he obviously never liked Hillary.

Well, what's to like?

The problem is that in Morris's anti-Hillary book, it feels so one-sided and hostile that it's hard to take it seriously. Then again, Hillary does bring out the hatred in people, if only because of the sheer audacity of her lies and her attacks on other people. Still, I expected a better book from a man who spent so many years connected to the Clintons.

But Morris's book about Bill explains all: Morris can't write effectively about Hillary because he doesn't actually know her. He was Bill's friend and merely tolerated Hillary.

The remarkable thing about Because He Could is that at the beginning, Morris does what I would never have thought possible: He actually makes a convincing case for Clinton having been responsible for some real achievements during his years in the White House.

At the same time, Morris also lays out Clinton's most disastrous mistakes and shows why Clinton did what he did -- and failed to do what he failed to do.

There's nothing in this book for a diehard Clinton supporter to like. But it brings some needed perspective to people like me, who recognized his deep dishonesty and detested his smarminess long before he locked up the Democratic nomination in 1992.

I spent the 90s barely watching television news, because I got nauseated -- or maybe just sick at heart -- whenever I saw his face on the screen as President of the United States.

Morris doesn't change my mind -- I still see the fact that he was elected twice as a permanent black mark against American civilization. But he does make it plain why good and intelligent people served this man, and continued to serve him even after his (and his wife's) utter selfishness and dishonesty were fully exposed.

*

Assault on Precinct 13 might have been better received about thirty years ago.

Maybe it was, since this one is a remake of an early John Carpenter movie with the same title. And that one was loosely based on the Howard Hawkes film Rio Bravo.

I'm not saying that the older film would have been a better production. It was made on a shoestring ($100,000) back in 1976, John Carpenter's first movie after his satirical sci-fi debut, Dark Star.

This one, by contrast, has Laurence Fishburne in the power role of a convict tagged for assassination by a group of rogue cops. Ethan Hawke plays the psychologically damaged police officer who has to form an alliance with him in order to save the lives of his team.

Add to that Brian Dennehy as a skeptical older cop on the verge of retirement and Gabriel Byrne as the leader of the bad cops, and you have a pretty high-powered cast.

The result is a good action drama that tries to create a few characters a little bit deeper than the normal guys-with-guns.

Yet it also felt vaguely old-fashioned. Not the setting or the characters -- it's the way the movie flows. It's actually content to spend a few moments now and then that aren't about bullets flying or somebody having to make decisions under agonizing pressure.

But the studio that allowed such an obvious mistake has been punished: The opening weekend was only $6.5 million. A movie about a zebra that races against horses did better.

Didn't they know they were supposed to make the characters into absurdly exaggerated archetypes of good or evil?

There's no room for a middle ground anymore. No room for a high concept movie that still tries to keep some fingerhold on reality.

We never took our eyes off the screen. At the end we found we had enjoyed ourselves all the way through.

A good, old-fashioned action movie.

*

I don't know why Harris-Teeter has switched over to plastic shopping carts.

Is it because they're lighter in weight? Because they're less likely to damage cars in the parking lot? Because they nest tighter so more can be stored in the same space?

I have no idea -- they don't check with me.

It's none of my business that these new carts, being deeper, will require the checkers to bend over a lot more during the day to lift stuff out of the cart.

And I can put up with the fact that there's less space under the cart, so things that used to fit there now have to be put into the cart.

What irritates me is the hinged metal grill that swings up and down across the kiddie seat.

When it's upright, it forms a higher back for that seat. When it's down, it's a useless shelf between the handle of the cart and the front of the kiddie seat.

The problem is that if you put that metal grill in the up position, but don't have a child in the cart, it's not exactly secure. When you push the cart across the parking lot, or a bumpy floor, the vibration can jostle the grill so it suddenly falls down.

And if you're pushing the cart with your hands partly open, the fingers slightly extended, there are a couple of absolutely purposeless metal protrusions that will smack into your knuckles with brutal force.

I speak from painful experience. I make my living from typing, and I was in sore for a couple of days, which didn't help me much.

Surely somebody tested these carts.

And what happens if you have a small kid sitting in that seat, and the metal grill is up behind him, and you go over a rough surface and it smacks down on the kid's head?

Here's some advice: never raise that metal grill. Keep it in the down position.

And if you do raise it, then keep your fingers tightly gripping the handle of the cart so they won't get smacked.

Nor would I ever place a small child in the kiddie seat with that metal slab hanging over his head.

*

For Men Only:

I mean it ladies. Don't spoil the surprise.

Guys, look at the calendar. Valentine's Day is getting close. A couple of weeks off.

I know, I know. For some of you that means you think you don't have to think about it until February 13th. Or 14th.

Get a clue, guys. It's so easy to make the woman you love happy.

Of course they're appreciative if you show up from work on the 14th with a handful of grocery store roses. (That is, if there were any left by the time you remembered and rushed over to get them.)

But don't you know what it would mean if you had something for her that showed you were thinking about Valentine's Day -- and, more to the point, about her -- in advance?

For instance, what if she opens her drawer -- or the fridge -- or gets to work and opens her desk drawer -- and inside she finds a little gift and a message from you?

Ignore the diamond salesmen. It doesn't have to be something expensive. It's almost more romantic if it's not.

What it should be is something that shows that you know her. A copy of a poem you know she loves. A treat she's fond of. Even a box of animal crackers -- if it comes with a note that says, "When I was five, this was my favorite treat. Now my favorite treat is your smile."

Oh, sure, right, you think that's sappy. Well of course it is! Except when it's being said by a man to the woman he loves.

And in case you haven't got the hint yet, Hallmark doesn't make a card that will mean as much as a handwritten note in your own words.

Have it waiting for her. Show that you planned ahead.

But you still have to get the flowers.


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