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
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
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
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
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
But I believe songs should do things that can't be done just as well in an
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
Basically, you just turn on the rhythm synthesizer on a cheap keyboard
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.