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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 10, 2015

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


Ricki, Crippled Carts, Barbarian TV

Longtime readers of this column are aware of how little I have liked Meryl Streep's performances ever since I first saw her in The Deer Hunter back in 1978.

In recent years, she has given a couple of performances that I enjoyed and even admired. And I think that in Ricki and the Flash she does splendidly.

Ricki is the stage name of an aging rock singer named Linda, who walked away from her husband and three young children in order to move to California to pursue her career in rock-and-roll. Now all her children are of marriageable age and she barely knows them; her husband's second wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), raised them as if they were her own.

Needless to say, Ricki's rock "career" never arrived. She cut one album, back in the days of vinyl; now she plays in a very good bar band, covering other people's hits, and earns a living by being a checker at Total Foods. All for the music, right?

She really had no choice, did she? She had to follow her dream, didn't she? Certainly that's the dogma that gets tossed around in movie after movie and meme after meme: Never give up! Follow your dream!

Here's a clue, folks. By the time you're near (or in) your sixties, and you gave up everything -- marriage, family -- in pursuit of your dream, maybe it's time to pack it in and admit that it isn't going to happen for you.

Only in the case of Ricki, even if she wanted to, she has nothing to go back to. Her husband, Pete (Kevin Kline) may still yearn for the woman he once loved, but he's happily married now to a loyal wife who stayed with him. One son, Josh (Sebastian Stan) is still willing to make a place for his mom in his life; another, Adam (Nick Westrate), is self-absorbed in his own inescapable destiny; and the daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), has just been jilted by her husband, who left her for another woman.

They're not exactly begging Mommy to come home. Those days are over.

And yet this sensitively written script (by Juno scriptwriter Diablo Cody -- a woman, despite the masculine Spanish name that means "devil"), admits that even a mother who abandoned her family, making it clear that she valued her music more than her children, has a role to play in their lives.

When Ricki, having spent her last dime on the plane ticket, shows up at her ex-husband's mansionesque house, Julie greets her with so much hostility that I could see the edges of the screen beginning to give off smoke. Yet over the next few days, with Ricki staying in the house because she doesn't have money for a motel, she and Julie are able to find a way to do each other some good.

In other words, this is a story about family love and family damage. Ricki's selfishness is excused, in her own mind, by the fact that she was "born to be Ricki," as if she didn't have any choice in the matter. And what makes it more poignant is that her band, The Flash, really is way better than your ordinary bar band.

In fact, Meryl Streep does a pretty good job of selling an Ann Wilson-like singing style. No, she doesn't actually have good enough pitch control to be a first-rate rock singer, but she has some pretty good chops. And it helps that Ricki's lover and the lead guitarist in The Flash, Greg, is played by Rick Springfield.

Unlike Streep, as a musician Springfield is the real thing (his latest album is the excellent Songs for the End of the World). And, despite his lack of Oscar nominations, Springfield is better at acting than Streep is at singing. His years on General Hospital were not wasted, and his scenes with Streep are the emotional heart of this movie.

This is not to denigrate the power of Ricki's scenes with her daughter Julie. Since Julie is played by Streep's real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, you certainly have no problem believing the physical resemblance between them. But this is more than stunt casting. Gummer is a wonderful actor. But because her character is broken and self-absorbed, she can't give us the warmth that makes the Springfield-Streep scenes so poignant and warm.

It's Julie who represents all the damage that Ricki's selfish choices caused to the people who loved and needed her. And it's Greg (Springfield) who represents her only remaining hope of love and happiness.

When Streep played The Wife Who Walked Away in Kramer vs. Kramer back in 1979, the script never gave her a chance to redeem herself. She was Generic Woman Who Must Free Herself From Male Domination, a character that seems even shallower now, after another 36 years of political correctness.

With this film, Streep has a better role and a chance to show the human being behind the selfish, short-sighted choices.

Not for a moment does the film insist that the audience agree that she made the right choice -- or the wrong one. But that's how life is. Right or wrong, all we can ever do is start where we are now and try to make better choices going forward.

And that's what Ricki and the Flash is about: The chance to make better choices. Every member of the family faces choices in this movie, and they all choose healing and reconciliation, even if in most cases it's a symbolic choice and may not last.

The decision by both sons to dance while their mother's band performs at Josh's wedding, for instance, and the stepmother's decision to invite Ricki to the wedding -- these don't signify permanent forgiveness, but they're all steps in the right direction.

This movie isn't suspenseful, so I'm not worried about spoilers. What makes it worth watching is the love that the writer and the actors create together. And the pretty good music.

The best song is the one that Streep plays alone, on acoustic guitar, in the living room of her ex-husband's house, with Pete and Julie listening. It's the new song, the only original in this movie of covers: "Cold One." I'm disappointed that the soundtrack only has the later electric version; I really want that acoustic performance. (You can catch it on video here; scroll down to the picture with Streep holding an acoustic guitar.)

Despite that shortcoming, and the occasional flaws in Streep's singing, this is an unusually good soundtrack album. Who knew that at age 66 Meryl Streep would cut a hit album? But this one deserves to be a hit. (There's also an "inspired by" album called American Ballads: Country Rock Music Inspired by the Film With The Flash and Ricki which isn't as good, but isn't bad, either.)

As an added bonus, the senile grandmother, Oma, is played by Charlotte Rae, the mother-figure in The Facts of Life (1979-86).

If I can overcome my anti-Streep feelings and love this film, I think there's a good chance that many will like it even more than I did. After a summer of mostly mediocre comic-book movies, it's nice that somebody made a first-rate film for grownups.

And even though Rick Springfield kind of steals the movie's heart, I think Streep would not be too offended if I pointed out that her daughter, Mamie Gummer, is a superb actor -- more real, less calculating than Streep was at the same age. I look forward to seeing her in stronger roles than she's had a chance to play up to now.

*

We have been regular customers of Harris Teeter since they first bought out Bestway and established themselves as the upscale grocery store in Greensboro.

For years I used to forage for shopping carts that people had dragged far from the Harris Teeter at Elm and Pisgah Church, and push them, sometimes in trains as large as six or seven, up the hill to return them to the store. So I knew very well that cart theft was common, and could be a severe problem.

Every lost or destroyed cart has to be paid for out of store revenues. That means the cart thieves cost all the customers money, in the form of higher prices.

So I understand completely why Harris Teeter replaced their old grey carts with new green ones that have computer-controlled locking wheels.

If you push a shopping cart beyond the perimeter of the Harris Teeter parking lot, the rear wheels lock up and you can't push it. Or, rather, you can push it about as easily as you could push a sledge.

All of this would be fine, except that the management of Harris Teeter has no concern whatever for the needs and convenience of their customers. These locking carts work by marking an electronic perimeter, rather like those invisible "dog fences" that give a shock to the dog that strays outside its yard.

Instead of drawing that perimeter at the edges of the shopping center parking lot, however, they arbitrarily decided that the only customers they care about are those who are parked directly in front of the store.

If you park down by the UPS Store or Ace Hardware, or up by the Bruegger's Bagels, you can't push your full shopping cart back to your car. Because those are outside the perimeter. They look like they're part of the parking lot for the shopping center, but as far as Harris Teeter is concerned, those places are forbidden.

On Tuesday afternoon, the parking lot in front of Harris Teeter was so full that I would have had to park about two-thirds of the lot away from the store. But there were plenty of spaces over by the Santa Fe Mexican Grill that were much closer to Harris Teeter.

As is my habit, I scanned for an abandoned cart so I could push it to the store and use it for my shopping. I found one and retrieved it. That's when I discovered that even though I was parked closer to Harris Teeter than most of the cars in the front lot, I was still in the hated no-man's-land where the shopping cart's wheels won't turn.

The only way to push it back to the store was to lift up the back of the cart and push it on its front wheels, like a really awkward wheelbarrow.

I knew then that once my cart was full -- and it was going to be full -- I wouldn't be able to push it back to my car in the normal way.

I'm a 64-year-old man, not in the best of shape. I chose the closest available parking place in the Harris Teeter parking lot, expecting to have the help of a cart in carrying my purchases back to the car. Now I knew that this would not be possible.

So after I paid for my purchases, I stopped at the customer service desk to register my complaint. The young lady there, who was not a manager, was very sympathetic, and pointed out what I had already guessed -- that the decision to skimp on the marking of the cart perimeter was made, not at the local store, but by "corporate."

You know what that means, right? Because "corporate" doesn't know or care about actual customers. They only look at numbers. It would have cost more to establish a perimeter the full size of the shopping center parking lot -- and, because carts would now be left farther out from the store, it would cost more employee time to gather up abandoned carts.

That makes sense to accountants. But it makes no sense to the customers who now have to figure out how to get their purchases home.

The young lady at the counter finally told me that the guy tending the self-checkout desk had a key that would unlock my cart. Alas, while he was quite willing to help, the key had been taken by another employee who was going to bring back carts that had somehow been sledged to an area behind the store.

He offered to stand outside with my purchases while I fetched my car, but I know how slowly I walk these days, and I didn't want a lot of meltable things to stay outside in the heat. Also, he was the only person tending the self-checkout, and I knew from experience how annoying it can be if the attendant isn't there.

So I declined his help and pushed the cart the ten feet from the door to the yellow stripe that marks the perimeter. At that point, I lifted up the heavily-laden cart and wheelbarrowed it awkwardly to the median, where I perched it while I loaded my car.

At that point, another employee came to take my cart back (which I always do, but it was nice of him to spare me that). I pointed out to him that when somebody is driving up and choosing a parking place, there is no signage of any kind informing us that if we park in this area, close to the store, we won't be able to bring our carts to the car.

His answer was to point to a sign that you cannot hope to see until you've already parked. What do you do then, go all the way back out to your car and move it?

Yeah, right. Slow-moving old coots like me really love having a chance to walk to and from our car twice, especially since I'd have to move from a close-in parking place to one much farther from the store in order to be within the boundaries of Harris Teeter's acceptance.

There is really only one conclusion to reach. Harris Teeter does not want customers to be able to park in the most convenient spot. Harris Teeter wants to make us walk much farther -- or carry our groceries out without the help of a cart.

They don't care enough to warn us before we choose an outlawed parking spot.

They're too cheap to move the perimeter so we can park near other stores and then also shop at Harris Teeter.

In other words, they want us to shop at Food Lion.

*

Visiting with friends, I caught an hour of Bachelor in Paradise (on ABC), a "reality" show that I would never have watched on my own. My friends were amused by the antics of the characters, as a supposed "beauty" (whom I found to be the least attractive of the women on the show in that episode, but ... go figure) jilted a man she had apparently been stringing along for weeks.

All the group scenes and solo commentaries by the participants made me sad: It's all junior high school with sex. Instead of text messages, they needed to have little penciled notes saying: "Do you like me? ____ Yes _____ No _____ Maybe."

What made it sad was that all these "beautiful people" were trying hard to fake sincerity, as if this whole show had something to do with real life and real love.

I don't think I'll be watching more, mostly because I know a much better class of people in the real world. I'd rather hang out with them. (And my friends are all better looking, too.)

I also happened to flip past Naked and Afraid XL (Discovery Channel), in which twelve former Naked and Afraid survivalists were plunked down in the Colombian jungle for 40 days (unless they tapped out).

I happened to catch the moment when a woman was angrily leaving two men who had somehow offended her -- and she had thrown their tools (two knives and a firestarter) into a body of water where, presumably, they were unrecoverable.

Since the survivalists have to make do with those few tools in order to catch and kill, then skin, cook, and eat whatever protein sources they find, if this were a real survival situation (i.e., if there weren't cameramen nearby), her actions would be tantamount to attempted murder.

Instead, she was free to be petulant because despite the rigors of the experience, it's still fake: They are being observed; they will not be allowed to die.

Later, though, from a summary by a friend who watched the whole show, and from an open letter published by one of the contestants on Facebook, I learned that these twelve people divided themselves into two groups. The larger group -- which my friend called "the welfare group" -- decided that since they wouldn't starve to death in forty days, all they needed to do was lie around near a water source and use up as little energy as possible.

Of course, humans can't just "lie around" -- so they squabbled and quarreled and the normal junior high stuff. Just what chimps would do, if they could talk. In best junior-high fashion, they picked "losers" and pushed and goaded them until they tapped out.

Again: If this had been real and there weren't producers at hand waiting to rescue the rejects, they would certainly have died in the wilderness. When you know it isn't quite real, attempted murder is taken rather lightly.

The two castoffs -- a man who wanted to make shelter and look for food, a woman who got lost for a week so the other two women in her group bonded without her -- were also introverts. Apparently that is a capital crime in this troop of baboons.

Two of the men, though -- branded the "Alpha Males" by the show's producers -- weren't content with sitting around sniping. They spent all day hunting for food, and several times scored significant amounts of protein, mostly in the form of eels.

They shared their protein finds with the welfare group, and in my friend's opinion behaved like menschen through the entire show.

My friend -- a woman -- was disgusted by the behavior of the women on the show. They all had a chip on their shoulder, taking umbrage at any help offered by the men -- even when they obviously needed the help.

Feminist rage is a luxury that could not survive in a real survival situation -- you know, without cameras you can play to. Because the women knew that the men could not possibly show rage on camera (it would instantly make them the Bad Guys), they could behave like a tush flambee and feel righteous about it.

But they didn't look righteous. They looked stupid, selfish, and short-sighted. And the guys who worked hard and provided for all were treated scornfully by the others -- though they certainly ate the food that the Alpha Males shared with them.

Each in its own way, both Bachelor in Paradise and Naked and Afraid XL show why civilization is so fragile, requiring constant effort and real sacrifice to maintain. Modern Americans take civilization so much for granted that they feel perfectly free to revert to barbarism at a moment's notice -- because they know that the grownups around them will keep things going.

It's like a lovely quote I read the other day (and promptly forgot the source): If everybody thinks outside the box, who's going to take care of the box? We glorify rule-breakers, selfish people who "follow their dream," and prickly self-righteous Offended Ones who allow themselves to become annoyed by trivialities.

And the number of people who tend to the box, who take responsibility for the well-being of others, who absorb many a word and many a harm without lashing out -- those are the people who keep civilization alive.

Two out of twelve, if Naked and Afraid XL is any guide; about the same proportion in Bachelor in Paradise. Is that enough to keep civilization alive?

Most of us live our lives without those reality-show cameras. With nobody watching -- and nobody to bail us out -- how many of us are on the grownup team?

By the way, in case anybody's thinking of watching -- or avoiding -- Naked and Afraid for the titillation factor, forget it. The blurring of naughty bits is so assiduously done that they might as well be wearing thick woollen robes. You watch for the danger, the resourcefulness, or ... the sniping, the bullying, the barbarism.

Like a sad, unfunny version of Tosh.0.

*

Years after joining Facebook, I actually went to my home page to see what my profile said about me.

It was an incoherent, inaccurate mess -- because I had entered what info there was before I had learned anything about how Facebook works.

The fact is, it doesn't. There are so many counterintuitive, hidden, or misleading ways of doing anything.

For instance, on the Family and Relationships page, my wife was not listed, and two of my children were listed by their full names instead of by their Facebook identities.

First, I tried to "Add a family member" in order to get my wife in there. But when I entered her Facebook identity, the menu "Choose Relationship" listed all kinds of options, but "wife" and "spouse" were not among them.

Nowhere was there the slightest indication that for a spouse, you have to enter the name under "Relationship," where there is no visible tool until you click under the word Relationship. Then you get some help. In other words, it's like trying to find an address on Cape Cod: If you don't already know, you can't find it.

By the way, before I found out how to put my wife's name in my "Relationship" slot, I gave up and added her as a Family Member under the heading "Pet." What else was I going to choose? Mother? Niece?

I'm beginning to think "badly designed" is the only kind of software anybody makes anymore.

I'm also trying to figure out just how many pets have their own Facebook identity ... and how they remember their passwords.


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