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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 7, 2005

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


Wedding Crashers and Toilet Paper

Wedding Crashers is a sex comedy with an R rating.

This normally means (1) there will be a lot of meaningless and unnecessary nudity; (2) people will have sex in the most unlikely circumstances and in ways that would strike ordinary people as unpleasant or embarrassing; and (3) everyone behaves with incredible stupidity.

Normally, sex comedies of this sort are amusing only to people full of beer, lonely travelers in hotel rooms, twelve-year-olds who have snuck a copy into the family DVD player while the parents are out, and the French.

Many parts of Wedding Crashers absolutely fit this description. It is fair to say that these are the precise sections of the film that played to a silent theater. Nobody laughed.

And we were at a theater in the Outer Banks, where everyone was in a beach-vacation mood. Much beer had already been consumed by people not in our group. No laughter.

But there's another kind of movie in Wedding Crashers. It's a light romantic comedy, and rather a sweet one.

This part of the movie is full of delightful banter -- dialogue so good it made me wish I knew anyone who talked that way. Heck, I wished I talked that way. And the actors were sweet and real and funny and warm, so the audience feels like they're friends, or should be.

And during this movie, the audience laughed constantly -- and actually cared about the people and how things turned out for them.

It would have been so easy for someone with taste and judgment to have filmed this movie, using the same cast and the same script so it was a genuinely sexy PG-13 romantic comedy with extraordinary wit and wonderful acting.

Instead, that movie keeps getting interrupted by a sex farce for pimply boys.

So I just tuned out the dumb movie and watched the good one, and I loved it. I laughed, I cared, and I was delighted to see Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn reveal themselves to be wonderful actors rather than simply being clowns.

The opening montage of wedding crashes is hilarious; the relationship between these two actors feels like something out of Oscar Wilde, it's so well written.

And as you add in the supporting actors, it only gets better: Christopher Walken as the powerful, dangerous father of the girls they fall for; Jane Seymour as their drunken Mrs.-Robinson-esque mother; Rachel McAdams luminous (and brunette) as the one member of the family who doesn't take everything seriously; and Isla Fisher, bringing life to what could have been a stock nymphoid character.

Unfortunately, two actors were not so fortunate. Will Ferrell was at his worst in a brilliantly written part that he quickly killed and zombified, singlehandedly destroying believability near the end of the movie.

But Keir O'Donnell was absolutely brilliant as the homosexual artist son. It is not his fault that the character was written entirely within the sex-farce portion of the movie. Writers Steve Faber and Bob Fisher could have created an interesting, believable character who did all the same things, only in a human way. Instead, the actor became their victim, used only for the cheapest kind of laughs.

Too bad. Because nobody laughed at him in the showing we saw. I think O'Donnell's performance was so intense and powerful that we simply couldn't laugh at him. He was too human, despite the writing.

I can't recommend this movie to anybody. But then, I don't have to. At this writing, it has already made nearly $150 million. I hope that the audience has consisted entirely of people who came for the stupid sex farce and instead got a more elevated experience than they wanted or deserved, thereby improving American culture by a tiny amount.

I fear, however, that the audience has mostly been people who came for the romantic comedy, and enjoyed it, and didn't even notice how the sex farce portions made them just a little bit more jaded and less sensitive as human beings.

*

Every now and then, someone finds these columns on my Hatrack River website (http://www.hatrack.com) and finds it hard to grasp that a columnist would regard everything as being within his purview. So they try to think of absurdly obscure things to review.

And it's amusing to imagine trying to review, for instance, athletes I've never heard of playing sports I've never seen, or restaurants that serve cuisines too strange to imagine.

But I'm always perplexed when someone thinks that the most outre thing I might possibly review is ... toilet paper.

But toilet paper is precisely the sort of thing this column exists for me to review. It's a product we all use (I hope), and most of us have strong preferences or serious annoyances with the particular brand we use.

Yet it never comes up in most polite conversations, I suppose because we don't want others to picture us in that small room, perched upon a porcelain commode, working a crossword puzzle or reading a book while waiting for nature to take its course.

If you find the subject repulsive, then for heaven's sake stop reading this column right now. Don't write a mean-spirited letter complaining about it. It's one of the basic rules of polite society: If you don't like the subject of a conversation, don't try to control what other people talk about -- leave the room.

All right, you were warned.

When I lived in Brazil in the early 1970s, the only kind of toilet paper readily available was a kind of ecru-colored crepe paper. It was narrow and the perforations were decorative -- it tore where it felt like tearing.

It was also quite stretchy and rough-textured. The result was that while it was strong -- your fingers rarely punched through it -- it was also abrasive. This was fine when you made only a few passes. But American visitors were prone to mild indigestion that could lead to rather frequent use of toilet paper. By the second day of this, the toilet paper could feel -- and function -- like sandpaper. By the third day, just looking at the paper could make you cry.

Just to make things more complicated, the sewage system in most places where I lived was simply unable to dissolve this particular kind of toilet paper -- no surprise, I think you could have used it to pave roads.

So the universal solution was to provide a wastebasket next to the toilet. Used paper was dropped into this receptacle, never the toilet. Since most families had maids (in poorer country, servants do the work instead of expensiveappliances) they didn't actually have to empty the wastebaskets themselves. But somebody did. I felt guilty using the wastebasket; but I'd have felt a whole lot guiltier if I tried to flush the paper and made the toilet back up all over the floor.

Because if your choice is to deal with a wastebasket full of used toilet paper and to mop up dirty toilet water from the floor, I think the wastebasket is by far the more civilized choice.

Late in my time in Brazil, an "American store" opened in a nearby mall. To Brazilians it was a place to buy the strange things that Americans used. (In those days, our cultural artifacts weren't as universal as they are now.) We found American candy bars -- which were waxy and flavorless compared to Brazilian chocolates. American toothpaste, root beer, nonprescription medicines, and ... above all ... toilet paper!

That was what we bought first and most. My companions and I cleaned them out every time we shopped there, and then traded the rolls of toilet paper throughout our mission the way GI's used to trade in nylons, cigarettes, and chocolate bars in occupied Europe. Because American toilet paper was such a relief.

It is part of our legacy as Americans: We have, without question, the best toilet paper in the world.

Not in our airports or theaters or restaurants or gas stations, of course, where the public restrooms -- if they have toilet paper at all -- offer us narrow, waxy strips that either fall apart or smear more than they absorb.

And our hotels and motels are often so stingy with toilet paper that they design dispensers so that you can only pull off one square at a time. Nobody wipes with one square, even it if it's two-ply. Get real!

But I've used toilet paper in countries all over the world -- domestic toilet paper, the kind people buy and put in their own homes -- and nobody even comes close to the American standard.

Now, it's possible that I like American toilet paper best because that's what I grew up with.

But I don't think that's the reason. I think American toilet paper is best because, by completely arbitrary standards, it is.

What are those standards?

1. Toilet paper should dissolve in the sewer system, so it is completely flushable and doesn't clog the system.

2. Toilet paper should be large enough that, when folded into the perforated squares, it covers the area in question without soiling one's hand.

3. Toilet paper should be absorbent to exactly the right degree. When it is wiping up a liquid mess, it should absorb some of it, but it can't be allowed to soak completely through and get any of the liquid on the hand. This is a devilishly hard balance to achieve (and it's part of the reason why we generally use more than one layer!).

4. Toilet paper should be abrasive to exactly the right degree. Sometimes it is required to clean up dryish or downright dry material. We expect our toilet paper to be able to get everything off the skin by rubbing. (Brazilian toilet paper was superb at this. Except that it also took a few layers of skin with it.)

5. Toilet paper should be strong enough that, even when moistened by use, one's fingers will not punch through and become soiled. This is a difficult balance to achieve in a paper designed to dissolve, since it is required to remain sturdy in different degrees of moisture. So it must remain firm and hold its shape when cleaning up liquids.

6. Toilet paper should be gentle. We want it to be kind to some of our tenderest skin, instead of peeling away a layer or two with repeated use.

7. Toilet paper should be cheap. We don't want to spend a lot of money on stuff that we're just going to flush away. (Arguably this argument should apply to food, as well, but the toilet paper goes directly into the toilet.)

Considering that our ancestors used pages torn from the Sears catalogs hanging in outhouses, it's probably a sign of our effeteness as a culture that we're such big babies about our toilet paper.

Or maybe it's a sign that we've come a long way, baby.

The paper companies know that this is a very serious business. They have spent -- and continue to spend -- millions of dollars researching, testing, and improving their product.

They have learned that a certain portion of the buying public doesn't care much about the quality of their toilet paper, and so there are "good enough" brands that don't try very hard. For instance, store-brand toilet paper and Scott tissue -- it does the job, but we know we're not being spoiled when this is all that's provided for us to use. We tend to layer it a little more and use it a little less vigorously, because it's not going to be as reliable.

(I grew up on Zee toilet paper, made by Crown Zellerbach, so I know all about the cheap brands. I lived, didn't I? So it isn't child abuse to provide your family with cheap toilet paper.)

But another very large part of the buying public will pay a little more to get premium toilet papers, which in America comes down, in most places, to the perpetual war of Charmin vs. Northern.

Charmin is the one that has spent the most on commercials -- that poor store manager with the toilet paper fetish, who kept trying to keep people from squeezing the Charmin while he couldn't help but squeeze it himself.

Northern has spent less on advertising, but they have always made a clear distinction between their product and Charmin's. Northern calls its toilet paper "stroft" -- strong and soft.

So it boils down to Charmin, which bet everything on softness, and Northern, which reached for a paper more balanced between strength and softness.

Now, however, both brands have an "ultra" model which is, in fact, an attempt to invade the other guy's market. So "ultra" Northern is very Charmin-like, and "ultra" Charmin is more like Northern.

Fundamentally, it's a matter of personal preference. Without making extensive, detailed inquiries, I get the sense that people who use their toilet paper in a wad prefer Charmin, while those who fold their toilet paper into neat flat panels prefer Northern.

This is because for many years, Charmin has been a little crumbly. This is how they were able to make their paper abrasive yet gentle. But it takes thicker packets to keep anything from soaking or tearing through. You have to use more of it.

Northern, on the other hand, is a little less abrasive and a little less absorbent -- but it doesn't tear or soak through as easily, and it doesn't crumble during use. So each packet is smaller -- but you sometimes have to use more of them to do the job.

In other words, both of them require you to use "more" toilet paper. But not really. Because wadders will always make big wads of paper -- so it might as well be Charmin, which accomplishes more with each wad. While folders will always fold up their paper, so it might as well be Northern, which accomplishes the job with thinner panels, so you feel like you're saving paper.

Both of them do a good job of all the tasks required of American toilet paper. And someday, people in every country will realize that they are just as good as Americans, and therefore deserve to have toilet paper that treats them as kindly -- and cleanly -- as American toilet paper.

(And for those Europeans who think that slick paper you so often use is better, I say, Sure, it's better -- if your only goal is to have zero risk of anything ever soaking through. But it absorbs nothing. It's like trying to wipe up a spill with waxed paper instead of a paper towel.)

As for whether wadders or folders are "right," I refuse to get into that argument. The choice of wadding vs. folding comes down to deep-seated psychological issues like body comfort and fear of filth and fear of wastefulness and fear of toilets overflowing.

Wadders are more likely to have their toilets overflow. Folders are more likely to punch a finger through the paper at unpleasant moments. (That's why toilets are located near sinks where we keep soap and can wash our hands.) Take your pick. It's none of my business.

But I will plunge into an issue that has riven families apart for generations: Do you place the toilet paper on the dispenser so it hangs forward over the top of the roll? Or so it comes out from under and behind the roll?

There are over-the-top households and out-from-under households, and I suspect more marriages have begun to break apart over this issue than any other. It's easier to reconcile holiday and vacation customs than this one. I know of some families where, after decades of marriage, the husband and wife still seethe whenever they run across a toilet paper roll installed in the other spouse's preferred orientation.

Obviously this is a matter of personal preference and family tradition, but there are some facts that can guide those who are able to be dispassionate about the matter.

1. Out-from-under is the only option in houses with dogs and cats -- and, in some cases, small children. That's because when an animal paws downward on a roll installed over-the-top, it can unravel an entire roll onto the floor.

Cats especially love this game.

So either you keep the bathroom doors closed all the time (like that will happen), or you install the rolls so that pawing does not unravel anything.

Toddlers, unfortunately, are human, and therefore after a while of pawing, they'll grasp and pull -- something cats rarely get the hang of and dogs never do. So pet-free homes with toddlers often opt for over-the-top toilet paper, and simply beat the children until they stop unraveling the rolls.

(This is a joke. Please do not write in and complain that I'm advocating child abuse.) (Especially don't write in to say child abuse isn't a joking matter. Toilet paper installation is a joking matter. Find something to be irate about that matters more than this review column.)

2. Over-the-top is the easier way to use toilet paper. You can more easily find the end, and more easily pull out the desired length of tissue and snap it off one-handed, thereby avoiding the need to set down your book or crossword puzzle.

So, all else being equal, over-the-top should be the standard installation in a non-pet household.

Unless you feel like doing it the other way. Because it's not that big a deal, folks. I provided you with intelligent rationales, but you can do what you like, and nobody's trying to force you to change. Lighten up.

I say this because I remember when Ann Landers let this topic stray into her column a couple of decades ago. People wrote in by the tens of thousands, furious that anybody would be stupid enough to install toilet paper the "wrong way." It just doesn't matter that much.

Another issue matters a lot more, and that's placement of the toilet paper dispenser.

Back when toilets were always crammed against the wall in a tiny bathroom, the dispenser was set into the wall beside the toilet, in easy reach.

Nowadays, though, bathrooms are getting bigger. No, bathrooms are getting huge, and this means one of two things is likely to happen:

1. The toilet is not beside any wall, so the dispenser is set into the wall behind the toilet. This means that, except for contortionists and children, you can't actually see the toilet paper.

There could be a big black widow spider sitting right on the toilet paper roll and you wouldn't know it till you bring it back toward you in a wad of paper, because you can't twist around far enough to see the paper before you grab at it.

Or else you do look, and then you keep throwing your back or neck out and have to pay for chiropracty or analgesics.

2. The toilet is placed in a tiny cubicle with a door separating it from the rest of the bathroom, in which case the space is often so narrow that people of any size find the toilet paper pressed up against their legs while they're using the john, which is uncomfortable and inconvenient.

First, a note to builders: What are you thinking! If you're going to put the toilet in a tiny cubicle, then raise the toilet paper above leg level! It's not hard. Just measure eight inches higher on the wall and put it there!

And if you're going to have the toilet stick out from the wall a half-mile from any side wall, then don't just stick the toilet paper dispenser behind the toilet, build a short half-high wall beside the toilet so the dispenser can be in easy reach.

It would also provide a place to set the crossword puzzles and the books that keep people busy while waiting for nature to take its course. Everybody wins.

But since we live in the real world, and therefore your home will have been build by monsters who want to torture people in their most vulnerable moments, here's the solution for the badly placed toilet paper dispenser:

Buy a freestanding toilet paper dispenser.

We've seen them in several catalogues over the years. They consist of a standard roller mounted on the top of a short pole. The pole is rooted in a heavy base so it doesn't tip over when you yank on the paper to tear off a length.

We've seen them in gold and silver and wood. They last forever -- we're still using the first one we ever bought. And each toilet-user can move it wherever he or she wants. So it will always be exactly as far away as you want it.

And if there's a black widow spider on it, you'll be able to see it before you pull on the paper.


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