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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 great tie.

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 wider.

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 17.) 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 the ties.

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 mean dull.

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 comedy.

(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 assembled.

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 women.

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 intimate friends.

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 women.

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 husband.)

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 both genres.

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 about them.

*

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 commerce.

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 them.)

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 ties.


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