Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 14, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Ties, The Women, Death's Half Acre, Beth's cookies
I wear a tie exactly one day a week, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a
Of course, what makes a "great tie" is in some ways a matter of taste.
Some men like a heavy-fabric tie that makes a substantial knot; some like a
lighter fabric, which makes a smaller knot. Some like to have the tie narrow
quite extremely above the forepart; others like to have it remain just a bit
Since I far prefer the equilateral double Windsor knot rather than the vertical
fore-in-hand, I need to have extra long ties -- even when I'm at my ideal neck
thickness. (In the past ten years, my neck size has varied up and down
between 15 and 17½.) The standard-length tie can only do a double Windsor
on men with skinny necks and/or tight collars.
But just try finding an extra long tie outside of The Hub or Casual Male
Big&Tall! And when you want real substance and a truly lush fabric and
fascinating design, your selection can be limited. As in zero, sometimes.
A couple of months ago we got a catalog from DeSantis Collection
(www.DeSantisCollection.com) and I was surprised to find that I actually liked
Usually, catalog ties are somewhere between sporting (dogs, sailboats, or golf
bags) and dull (stripes, stripes, or stripes). Neither has the slightest appeal to
me. When I have to wear a tie, I want to make sure it's a tie worth wearing.
Of course I understand that those dull ties are exactly what is needed by men
whose jobs require them to seem dull. Er, I mean, safe and dependable. OK, I
And the sporting ties no doubt speak volumes to men who fancy themselves
country squires or yachtsmen, or who live for the golf course.
DiSantis has its share of dull ties, of course -- they're the bread and butter of
tiemakers. But they also sell some gorgeous paisley and rosette designs, and
some that are bolder (near solid blacks and silvers) or downright bizarre --
while still being wearable. Or at least wearable by me.
They're expensive. We're talking $90 to $165, plus ten bucks for the extra
length. This is a major gift.
But when my wife got me one for my birthday -- a russet/gold paisley -- I was
astonished at how thick and rich the fabric was. It made a perfect double
Windsor, with a substantial knot, and it feels like it could last forever.
Oddly enough, the online store doesn't really do the ties justice. It's like seeing
them from across the room. The printed catalog comes closer to the actual
look of the ties; you can see them well enough to make fair judgments about
the fabric as well as the print.
So if you want to give a tie-wearing man a good gift, I suggest you start by
going to the website and requesting a catalog. Then show him the book and
see which ties make him drool. Maybe you'll discover things about him that
you didn't know.
For instance, you may be shocked to find out that this stodgy guy you're
married to covets the Reveille or Ribbon-Curl designs from the Vitaliano
collection. Or the grey-on-grey (with a hint of sepia) Metro Paisley or Crinkle
Tonal Stripe Jacquard.
Or the blue and green flower accents of the Harvest Bouquet, or the barely
visible brocade florals of the Garzato Signet.
This is almost necktie porn, I'm afraid. Talk about an expensive addiction!
But it's better than watching your husband drool over the Victoria's Secret
catalog, am I right?
George Cukor's 1939 film The Women is a bit of a cult favorite -- but I'm in
the cult. It always surprises me how few people know the movie, since the
script -- by Anita Loose and Jane Murfin, based on the play by Claire Booth
Luce -- absolutely sizzles.
It's one of those movies where actresses get to be smart and funny and
powerful and intimate and emotional. But it's also one of those movies -- like,
for instance, George Roy Hill's a Period of Adjustment -- that sound to a lot of
people like some kind of medicine, so they stay away from brilliant realistic
(Period of Adjustment has one of Jane Fonda's most brilliant pre-Klute
performances, and Jim Hutton, Tony Franciosa, and Lois Nettleton are
absolutely wonderful in this film based on a Tennessee Williams script.)
Now The Women has been remade, and it's one of those rare cases where a
classic movie has actually been improved upon. It helps that writer and first-time director Diane English updated the script with an unerring eye for the
balance between changes in modern society and the aspects of women's
character and society that last forever, regardless of trends and fads.
What this movie definitely is not is politically correct. Oh, yes, there's a lesbian
character, played by an out-there Jada Pinkett Smith. The lesbian women I've
known well are not so assertively gay -- but then, I've never been with them
when they weren't in the presence of a man. I'm sure the type that Smith plays
exists, and she seems quite mild when they contrast her with the absolutely
over-the-top Natasha Alam.
Another thing this movie isn't is anti-male. As with the original film, absolutely
no post-puberty males appear in the movie; and you certainly get an earful of
attitudes toward misbehaving men. But there's never even a speck of hatred,
and rage only comes where it's well-earned.
What astonished me, in fact, was how even-handed this movie was to the men.
They may not appear on the screen, but they're absolutely given a fair hearing.
Right from the start, this movie is funny and smart and real. It has an almost
mythical cast: Meg Ryan acting through the vestiges of her cuteness to achieve
perhaps the finest performance of her wonderful career; Annette Bening in a
generous acting-her-age performance as a career woman in terror of losing the
dream she has finally achieved; Debra Messing finally getting to combine her
spot-on comic timing with a character of some substance.
Then you layer in a show-stealing performance by Cloris Leachman as Meg
Ryan's housekeeper; a sweetly real performance by India Ennenga as Meg
Ryan's daughter, a part that could have been played as pouty; Candice Bergen
at her bitingly witty best in the role of Meg Ryan's mother; a near-cameo by
Carrie Fisher as an acid-tongued gossip columnist who knows how to get what
she wants; a knock-em-dead Bette Midler as a hilariously lovable but cynical
movie agent; and the underused comic genius Debi Mazar as a compulsively
talkative manicurist, and you have one of the most talented ensembles ever
All you need to make it perfect is two more casting elements:
1. Eva Mendes with a spot-on performance as the husband-stealing Crystal
Allen, and ...
2. No Meryl Streep.
No, I'm not bashing Streep. I've recently seen her in enough performances that
I actually enjoyed that I am finally willing to concede that she does not destroy
every movie she's in. In fact, she can sometimes be wonderful.
But in this movie her it's-all-about-me approach to acting would have killed the
ensemble effect, so whether they tried to get her for this movie or not, I'm glad
she's not in it. Nobody demanded that the movie be all about her.
This film cost very little to make, considering the quality of the cast. Most of
the money went to the cast, I'm sure, because the film is almost entirely
indoors, either in a few houses and apartments or in fancy shmancy stores that
couldn't pay for such good advertising so they'd better not have charged to
have scenes shot there!
There were brilliant directorial touches -- for instance, the fashion show when
Meg Ryan's new line is launched. It was done with 60s-era split screens and
MTV-era pacing, but the timing was perfect and made it exciting, even though
the designs themselves generally made the models wearing them look awful.
(This is actually authentic, of course, but still hard to watch.)
I asked my wife after the movie: How real was this? Setting aside the fact that
most of my wife's friends (but by no means all) are religious women who don't
share many of the main characters' attitudes toward sex, her verdict was that
this movie was exactly right. It shows how women feel about each other, how
they bond and network with each other.
It shows, in short, the real world of women, because in that world, with rare
exceptions, men are only visitors or, perhaps, landed immigrants. Men have
enormous power over the lives (and thoughts and dreams) of women -- even
women who have no use for men. But the actual community most women live
in -- even predators like Crystal Allen -- consists almost entirely of other
I loved this movie. For my money, only the Frances McDormand/Amy
Adams/Shirley Henderson-starring masterpiece Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
rivals it as best picture of the year.
But then, I love chick flicks. Maybe because they tend to be about the things
in life that matter most. (No, sorry, Dark Knight was fantastic, but it's fantastic
-- meaning utterly unreal. Sound and fury.)
But maybe I also love chick flicks because I love women. Even in high school,
most of the friends I hung out with were girls. Only a few male friends, and
they were like me, the kind of guy who prefers the company of women.
So I've never understood the dread of chick flicks that so many men seem to
have. It seems to me that if you want to understand women, you could not do
better than to watch films by women about the things women care about.
As far as I could see, though, I was the only man in a small but crowded
theater on Saturday afternoon. Certainly mine was the only male voice I heard
laughing at these brilliant lines and sight gags.
Your loss, guys.
But then, maybe not. Because if there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's
that in the end, as a man I'm an onlooker, seeing what intimacy looks like, but
knowing that only women seem to be capable of creating networks of truly
But we men who go to the school of women can, if we want to, learn to become
apprentice participants in these networks. And, contrary to the apparent fear
of a lot of guys, you don't become less manly for doing so. (Gay guys are not,
contrary to the film cliche, automatically "honorary women.") In fact, men may
be at their most manly when they actually try to understand women and
become a part of their real lives.
Something that none of the men in The Women actually do; but a couple of
them try, and one of them even comes close. Of course we only hear about
these men -- but we can see what a difference they make in the lives of the
In a way, the most disturbing thing about The Women is that it is complete
without a single man in a single scene. (Though there is one cheat, when the
housekeeper and the maid report on a scene between Meg Ryan and her
The male equivalent is the war film, where women are virtually nonexistent
(and when they do enter the film, it is almost always as a terrifying
complication precisely because they don't belong in this male-society thing).
But it's all very symmetrical. Even though men are virtually absent from or
idealized in chick flicks, and women are nearly absent from war films, the
opposite sex is still a huge part of what gives meaning to everything going on in
And the next time we have dinner or are at a party together, I'll happily defend
that statement at length and, I hope, entertainingly. But there's a limit to how
many pages the Rhino can turn over to me, so I'll give it a rest right here.
Except to say The Women is a must-see for women -- and for men who care
Margaret Maron is a North Carolina treasure -- a mystery writer who is among
the best in the field today, but who uses authentic Carolina settings and issues
for her novels.
Death's Half Acre follows Maron's delightful, dependable formula: There's one
central murder which main character Deborah Knott is not actually involved in
investigating -- she's a judge, and it's her husband, the sheriff, who actually
does the official detecting.
But alongside this there are personal and family issues -- in this case, her old
moonshine-running father taking care of a religious charlatan who has been
sucking up old people's life savings and family properties by exploiting their
faith -- and also many fascinating and completely believable court cases that
Knott herself must resolve.
And in the midst of it all, we can hear Maron's characters groaning with
indecision about how suburbia is spreading into rural tidewater Carolina. You
have no doubt whose side Maron is on, but in the process you can see her --
and her characters -- dealing with the fact that people will move to the country
(at least until gasoline becomes too expensive) and so a way must be found to
preserve a rural way of life while accommodating the increase of traffic and
But now I'm making it sound like an op-ed piece. Well, Maron has her op-ed
moments, little sermonettes. But hey, the woman makes sense and she's
rarely unfair to anybody. And those sermonettes are way better than listening
to people babble in our pathetic state legislature. (Speaking of which, she
absolutely destroys the career politicians who show up in this novel.)
Maron is one of those novelists who has not lost touch with the working and
farming classes. It makes her novels rich explorations of American life. It's
here, not in academic-literary fiction, that American culture is chronicled.
You might think that the last thing I need is a more excellent chocolate chip
cooky, but you would be wrong.
I'm going to eat chocolate chip cookies whether they're excellent or not. The
question is only how much time I'm going to spend baking them myself, or how
hard it is to get to the place where they sell the rare commercial cookies that
are worth eating.
My favorite fresh-baked commercial chocolate chip cooky is still Blue Chip
(www.bluechipcookies.com). But sometimes you don't want to wait for days to
get your cookies.
And while I still love Swoozie's nibble-size chocolate chip cooky, I've found a
better one. I pulled it off the shelf while shopping at Fresh Market, and my wife
and I are both addicted. No, that's not true. We exercise supreme self-control,
and packages sometimes last as long as four or five days in our house. (It
helps that our daughter dislikes chocolate so only my wife and I are nibbling at
What is this magical cooky? Beth's Heavenly Little Chocolate Chip Cookies.
They come in brown paper bags with roll-down tops. No trans-fats. No
preservatives. No corn syrup. And besides the chocolate chip cookies, my wife
likes Beth's Oatmeal Raisin Cookies and I absolutely love Beth's Vanilla
Wafers. (The only drawback to the vanilla wafers is that unlike they other
cookies, they're so light a crumbly that about a quarter of the cookies end up
as delicious dust at the bottom of the bag.)
Alas, you can't order these cookies from www.beths.com -- which is foolish of
them. In fact, they're so inept at using the internet that they have a page for
you to print out and give to your grocery store, asking them to carry Beth's
cookies -- but nowhere on the form is the address "Beth's Fine Desserts, PO
Box 2368, Mill Valley CA 94942," so that the grocer can contact them and
carry their products! Now, maybe there's some secret known to all in the retail
grocery business that makes this information unnecessary, but it sure looks
dumb to me.
But you don't have to be good at using the internet to make great cookies. And
maybe someday they'll perfect the packaging of their vanilla wafers so that they
don't wind up hopelessly crumbled.
At least in Greensboro we can get Beth's cookies at Fresh Market. And when
you think about it, what the rest of the country needs is not to order Beth's
online, it's to have their own Fresh Market.
Meanwhile, Beth's cookies remain part of the reason I have to order extra-long