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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 24, 2005

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

Brigadoon, Local Stores, Millions, Guess Who, 1812, Bering Strait

Brigadoon is one of the great musical comedies from Broadway's golden age -- you know, back in the days when they were trying to entertain you instead of shock you, and when the music was meant to be a joy to listen to.

That's why I chose to direct it with my Summit Players troupe, a group of volunteers, mostly young but some as old as me. It's the story of two American hunters in Scotland who stumble upon a village that isn't on any map, and where the people live as if it were still 1605.

The wonderful Lerner & Loewe score includes songs like "Almost Like Being in Love," "Come to Me, Bend to Me," "There But for You Go I," and "My Mother's Wedding Day."

Those who have seen our previous shows (Fiddler on the Roof last year, Once Upon a Mattress, Bye Bye Birdie, and The Fantasticks the years before) know that we present sharp, tight productions that move through the story at a breathless pace.

And you can't beat the price. No money changes hands. The only "cost" is that you have to sit on metal folding chairs for the two hours of the show.

This year we're opening our final dress rehearsal for anyone to attend if you wish (we have paid the extra royalties, so it's legal). That's the Thursday night show, on 5 May; it will be performance quality, but there will be occasional interruptions.

(Brigadoon, presented by the Summit Players: Thu. Fri. Sat., May 5-7, at 7:00 p.m. at the LDS Church, across from Claxton School on Pinetop Rd. To reach Pinetop, take Westridge south from Battleground or Bryan, or north from Friendly. There is no charge; no donations are accepted. Please do not bring children under age 8.)


It's hard to decide what dry cleaner or laundry to use. Unless they actually set your clothes on fire, aren't they pretty much the same? And no dry cleaner could survive for long if they didn't keep their prices right in line with everybody else.

So the only way clothes cleaners can compete with each other is with service. For years I took my clothes to"A Cleaner World" on Lawndale just north of Pisgah Church, because they sent people out to your car to pick up your laundry from you. You never had to get out of your car.

It's a great service, especially when you're in a hurry on the way home from work, and they would have kept my business ... except that they simply could not handle my oversized clothes.

This is back when I was wearing size 2XT and 3X shirts, and their automatic shirt-pressing machines simply couldn't handle that much fabric. The shirttails got down into the hinges of the machine and it sliced them like scissors. Every shirttail I had was blessed with a couple of one- or two-inch ragged slits at the hem.

I begged them to let me pay extra to have them hand-iron my shirts. Or not to iron them at all. "Just wash them and I'll iron them at home!" But they couldn't vary from their system. I wasn't an individual, I was just a pile of shirts, and if they got sliced up, well, too bad for me.

So I changed cleaners. The one nearest my home was in the same shopping center as the Harris-Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church, now called Lake Jeanette Cleaners. I felt so put upon, to actually have to find a parking place and walk to the cleaners.

But I soon got over that sense of deprivation, because from the beginning, through two owners, I have received excellent individual service. When I go there, they know my name -- loyalty has its rewards -- so I can just drop off clothes and go on about my business.

When I have a lot of clothes to take out to my car, they always offer to help me carry it. Being unusually macho, I always decline -- but I've seen them help some frail little ladies who might have had trouble handling car doors while holding hangers of clothing over their heads.

I've had them alter clothing for me and they did an excellent job; and it looks to me like it's a cheerful place to work, judging from the attitudes of all the employees. The owners are a married couple who are almost always on the premises. It's one of those small businesses that make you feel like you actually live in a neighborhood.


The ironic thing is that even big chains can act like a local store, if they only want to.

I was talking to a fellow who works in the retail store software business. His job is to market the computer programs that let stores keep track of their inventory and sales.

The information is (or should be) right there for big chain stores to track exactly what is being sold in each store in the chain.

Yet they act as if all their stores were identical.

For instance, a couple of weeks ago I was in Fresh Market, looking for Haagen Dazs chocolate chocolate chip ice cream; Harris-Teeter had stopped carrying it, so Fresh Market was my last resort.

I love Fresh Market -- for lots of reasons. It's a great store, for one thing, living up to its name perfectly. And I also like that it's a local success story, a chain that started out in Greensboro and now is thriving in many locations.

It happened that the guy from Haagen-Dazs was there stocking the freezer -- and there was no chocolate chocolate chip.

"Sorry," he said. "Fresh Market took it off their order."

I was baffled. "Look at all the rum raisin. There's always rum raisin here because nobody buys it. But you're restocking the rum raisin. They constantly run out of chocolate chocolate chip because even if nobody else buys it, I do."

"I guess," he guessed, "that they must sell more rum raisin throughout the chain than they do here."

"And what about the Haagen Dazs chololate mousse and French vanilla mousse? They were the best ice creams sold in stores, period. Why did Haagen Dazs discontinue them?"

"They didn't," he said. "The stores around here stopped stocking them, that's all."

This is simply amazing. Here these stores have a computer inventory system that allows them to know exactly how many of each item they're selling in every store. My purchases were constant enough to establish a pattern. If they had cared to go to the bother, they could have kept supplying me with the number of cartons I usually buy.

Heck, if they'd only bothered to say to me, "Mr. Card, you're only buying four of these a month, and we can only afford to stock them if we sell eight, because they come eight to the box," I would have bought all eight! (I take my ice cream seriously.)

In other words, with the help of computers, every Harris-Teeter or Fresh Market in the world could be the perfect neighborhood store, always stocking what the customers want to buy, in the quantities they need.

Instead, they make chainwide decisions: "We're only selling fourteen of these a month in Greensboro, so we'll take it out of the stores," instead of noticing that ten of those fourteen are all selling in one store, and allowing the customers who shop there to keep buying it.

Harris-Teeter has adopted a hub-store philosophy, apparently. A lot of items that they used to carry in the store on Pisgah Church Rd. are now available only if you drive to the megastore in Friendly Center.

But I don't live near there. It isn't easy to get ice cream back home from Friendly Center unmelted.

Here's a clue, guys: Whichever one of you actually starts using the power of computer inventory systems to shape every store in the chain into a genuine local store will be the winner.

Harris-Teeter tries to fake it, by having our little VIC cards flash our names up on the checkers' screen so they can say, "Did you find everything you needed today, Mr. Card?"

But I'm not fooled. They don't know my name. And even though their software could tell them exactly what I buy every week or month, they don't care enough to check, and so they keep discontinuing exactly the things I like best.

They are not my neighborhood store, but they could be.

They don't know me, but they should.

You know what I think? If they stopped making their decisions at the corporate level and gave discretion -- and the individualized computer data -- back to the local store managers, they would soon find that profits increased.

Because the name of the game in grocery retailing is customer loyalty. Low prices and specials drive a certain segment of the grocery-buying public; but location and loyalty are at least as important. In pursuit of efficiency at the corporate level, these chains are killing customer loyalty at the local level.

I believe the technical term for this kind of decision-making is "dumb."

But there's hope. Because yesterday, when I went into the Lawndale Fresh Market to resupply my San Pellegrino Aranciata and Limonata, I checked the ice cream freezers, and lo! Chocolate chocolate chip from Haagen Dazs.

It seems that Fresh Market does give the local-store manager the power to order something, if not from computer data, then from the whining of a disgruntled customer.


Which means they just won back a whole lot of loyalty points from this whiner. I am now officially gruntled.


Millions is being marketed (if you can call it marketing) as a kids' movie. It's not.

It has children in the two largest roles, and it's about childhood and family life. But this is a quirky independent film that is primarily for adults. Some kids will enjoy it. But young kids won't have a clue what's going on.

Based on a children's book (by Frank Cottrell Boyce) about a young boy who wants to be a saint, Millions does an excellent job of developing a strong element of religious faith without letting the movie wallow in it. The treatment of saints is as deft as the treatment of God in Joan of Arcadia, with a balance of humor and innocent faith that is a joy to watch.

At the same time, it's something of a thriller, with this young boy and his brother caught up in a criminal plot taking advantage of the changeover between British pounds and Euros. They learn just how hard it is to get rid of a few hundred thousand dollars by a deadline, without attracting attention. There's a lot of good comedy, and many a moment that shows people being surprisingly decent to each other.

I wish, though, that the filmmakers had remembered who the likely audience for this story was going to be. In the book, there's a scene where the boys talk about how you can see certain features of a woman's anatomy through the underwear in an online ad. That's fine -- it was funny -- but the filmmakers felt the need to show the anatomy. Why? Did they think their audience would consist of people who didn't know what a breast looked like, and needed this movie to teach them? It would have been funnier if we had never seen the screen shot.

And when they had the boys discover their father in bed with a woman, what was the point? That scene wasn't in the book, and it wasn't needed to make the story go forward.

Ah well. Those are the times we live in. No doubt the people involved with the film thought they were being "brave" and "honest," when in fact those moments were conformist, unoriginal, unfunny, and adolescent.

But those moments are brief enough; the film easily rises above that level at every other point. I laughed often, and was sometimes moved; it's well worth seeing. For grownups and mature children, that is.


Guess Who is a remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a smarmy, politically correct anti-racism film of 1967. That one is almost unwatchable today, except, of course, for the pleasure of watching Sidney Poitier. He's the only actor in the film who is able to overcome the bad dialogue they were all forced to say.

It's a different era. Instead of being released to an America for which interracial marriage is a shocking rarity, today most Americans personally know both members of at least one interracial couple. Except for a few diehard bigots, it's not that big a deal.

It was a terrific idea to swap the races in this reinvention of the premise. For one thing, it is far more socially acceptable for black parents to resent a white prospective son-in-law than for white parents to resent a black one. There's no particularly rational reason why this should be so, but it is. Therefore we can watch Bernie Mac vehemently deny that he's concerned about Ashton Kutcher's color impairment, while knowing that he's horrified at the idea -- and we still like him.

This movie is funny without pushing too hard. It plays on the keyboard of race relations at the personal level without ever having to deliver us a sermon. Kutcher is downright likeable -- a first, for me -- and Bernie Mac proves once again that he is the consummate Black Dad in American film and television today. Zoe Saldana is luminous as Mac's daughter, and Judith Scott is sexy and strong as Zoe's mom and Mac's wife.

I hardly need to recommend this movie -- it's been out for weeks and has done very well. It deserves to. I enjoyed almost all of it.

But I still have to register one complaint:

I'm sick of the humiliation of men and the trivialization of marriage in American films.

A good marriage does not consist of one partner constantly giving in and humbling himself -- or herself -- in front of the other. When this movie culminates in one man telling another, If you want to get along with a woman, just apologize, I see red. Because it's not true. It doesn't work.

Here's the true rule: If a couple always gets along and never quarrels, chances are that somebody's getting their way way too much.

And if one partner in the marriage is doing all the apologizing and all the giving in, then it's the other partner who is the problem.

A real marriage, one that has staying power and a chance for both partners to be happy, depends on genuine compromise. This movie would have been about fifteen minutes long if Zoe Saldana's character had simply stopped and listened reasonably to what Ashton Kutcher's character said, and tried to see things from his point of view.

But this movie insisted that the only person who should see things from the other point of view was the man; women are above that.

And when the movie reaches its climax when both men are forced to humiliate themselves in front of their prospective mates in front of a group of their womenfriends -- well, that's going too far.

Neither sex is superior to the other, and neither should take it for granted that the other sex is lower. In my opinion, a woman who makes her man apologize to her in front of her girlfriends is not worth keeping. It suggests a desire to degrade and humiliate him that will end up destroying any semblance of a happy marriage.

Guess Who is supposed to be about overcoming bigotry. But it completely reflects the anti-male bigotry of our society today, and makes no effort whatsoever to overcome it. Racism may be in full retreat -- and thank heaven for that. But male-bashing sexism is rampant, fully approved of by far too many ordinary Americans.

Get a clue here, folks: Most men don't run the world -- most men are pushed around, not only by the men who are in control of the levers of power, but by the women in their lives as well. It starts in grade school and, if this movie is any guide, it will never stop as long as a man might live.

There are good men in this world, who are worthy of respect. They should be married to good women who are willing to give it to them. Even in the movies.


1812: The War That Forged a Nation may not prove its subtitle to be true -- not when the Civil War was still thirty-five years away when the War of 1812 ended -- but it's still a highly readable popular history of America's most obscure major war.

It was the last war we ever fought against a foreign enemy on our own soil. It was the last time we ever invaded Canada (and we sure did a pathetic job of it!). It was the last time there were naval battles on Lake Champlaine or Lake Erie.

It's the war where we lost Detroit for a while, and where British troops marched into Washington DC, sacked the White House, and burned government buildings. This action was deplored by many in Europe and in England itself -- they pointed out that European capitals changed hands many times in the Napoleonic wars without any of them ever being deliberately set afire -- but it's good to remember that it was American troops invading Canada who started the business of burning towns.

Reading this book is a good reminder of a simple fact that stupid or weak or cowardly commanders on our own side almost invariably cost more American lives than the enemy could ever take by their own exertions. In fact, If there's one thing that our contemporary army has finally achieved, it's the submersion of private ambition to an astonishing degree, compared to past wars.

But this is a war that divided America as much as it united us. After years of suffering under Jefferson's stupid Embargo policy, that crippled our own economy without damaging the foreigners we were supposed to be hurting, trade-dependent New England was fed up with the Jefferson-Madison tradition. They felt -- correctly -- that they were bearing the chief burden of a war they didn't want, and there was serious talk of secession.

There is, however, one nation that was unified by the War of 1812: Canada. What was learned on both sides of the border was this: Canadians were not frustrated Americans, yearning to throw off the yoke of British oppression. They were Canadians, eager to get rid of their big bullying intrusive neighbor to the south.

And ever since we proved ourselves incompetent to capture and hold onto any ten acres of Canadian soil, we've managed to live in peace with our northern sibling.

Another nation was destroyed in the War of 1812 -- the Creek Indians, who tore themselves apart in a civil war while taking on Andrew Jackson's militia army.

I highly recommend this book as the single clearest account of a war that should not be forgotten.


Bering Strait is -- I'm not kidding -- a Russian bluegrass band. If you weren't one of those lucky enough to see them perform when they came to Greensboro about a month ago, it's well worth picking up their self-titled cd.

You probably aren't used to thinking of someone named Natasha Borzilova as a singer of bluegrass country songs. Country singers aren't supposed to have last names that end in a vowel. They're supposed to be Americans with Scotch-Irish-sounding names, doggone it! And, not to put too fine a spin on it, they're supposed to grow up in the Ozarks or the Appalachians, not on the vast plains or in the deep woods of Russia.

But this group of classically trained musicians fell in love with bluegrass instruments and music and worked it out. They aren't doing a Russian imitation of American country music, they're doing the real thing, and while their album mostly covers songs by established American songwriters, they have some originals and you won't be able to tell which is which without doing a little checking.

Borzilova sings without a trace of an accent -- except, of course, a country one, but around here that isn't an accent, that's just how folks talk. If it weren't for the one Russian folk song on the album, you'd hardly have a hint of what's going on. And the instrumental "Bearing Straight" will convince you if nothing else does.

I have listened to this album over and over with delight. Wish I'd been in town for their concert. Of course, maybe my desire to hear them perform will be my excuse for finally going to Russia.


I stare at my computer for many hours a day -- at least on days I can get myself to climb out of bed and go to work.

So it's important to me that the "wall" I see the most -- the screen of my computer -- be a window into a beautiful world.

It's also important that it change.

That's why I forked over the twenty-five bucks to buy Wallmaster Pro. It's a nifty piece of software that allows you to cycle through every bit of screen art you have on your computer. I've set mine to change pictures randomly every ten minutes.

My tastes are eclectic. I'll go from a romantic Bouguereau or Alma-Tadema painting to photos of magnificent scenery, from quirky humorous art I scanned from Illustrators Annual to bits and pieces I picked up from magazines, advertisements, or whatever source has an image I want to see again.

There is a free version of Wallmaster, which allows less flexibility but may do all you want. You can download it, or the trial version of the "Pro" software, at: http://www.tropicalwares.com/

This software is bug-free after years of operation; it hasn't had an update in years because it does its job and does it right.

But I warn you: Once you start having pictures cycle on your screen, you're going to want more and more and more of them. You'll buy a scanner. You'll download online images.

So here's another helpful hint. The hardest graphics operation to get right is upsizing pictures to make them fit a higher-resolution screen. Most graphics software does a second-rate job of making digital pictures larger. (Anybody can shrink an image.)

My recommendation? CompuPic. You can download a free trial version at http://www.photodex.com , and once you see how much better it does at creating reasonably sharp upsized images, you won't go back. The Pro version adds the ability to resize and rename large batches of files in a single operation -- absolutely essential for me. CompuPic is also an excellent piece of software for managing digital art. And you'll be very happy with the results when you crop your own digital photos or scanned art and then resize them.

When you scan or capture art or photographs, however, remember: Copyright laws exist for a reason, and should be respected. I may choose to view the art I buy on my computer, but I don't then give away the original. Nor do I make copies of the art to give away, except in a few cases where the art is public domain. It doesn't hurt to obey the rules; and I get an art gallery on my computer.

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