Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Snapshots of A Child's Christmas in Massapequa

There's a whole literature of vibrant writing from writers looking back to the Christmases of their childhood for memoir or fiction.

My favorite is Dylan Thomas's wildly florid prose poem of A Child's Christmas in Wales:

Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed. But here a small boy says: "It snowed last year, too. I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea."

Dylan's writing is so exuberant it lead me to search for some memories of my own childhood Christmases . . .

years and years ago when the GI Bill first lead to the burgeoning of middle class suburbia outside of Gotham, and the next generation reaped the benefits of prosperity within its sprawl. A split level house meant having a staircase to bound down on Christmas morning. The anticipation of walking down those stairs made us all giddy.  As we descended, the living room came into view, dotted with brightly wrapped presents piled high in specific spots for each family member. It was a magical sight and the joys of the day were those that would never be matched again in quite the same way.

Katherine Anne Porter wrote the lovely "A Christmas Story"

When she was five years old, my niece asked me again why we celebrated Christmas. She had asked when she was three and when she was four, and each time had listened with a shining, believing face, learning the songs and gazing enchanted at the pictures which I displayed as proof of my stories. Nothing could have been more successful, so I began once more confidently to recite in effect the following:
    The feast in the beginning was meant to celebrate with joy the birth of a Child, an event of such importance to this world that angels sang from the skies in human language, to announce it and even, if we may believe the old painters, came down with garlands in their hands and danced on the broken roof of the cattle shed where He was born.


I shared my Christmases with my only sibling, an older brother. His presents were of no interest to me--a virtual litany of trucks, cars, trains, army men, model airplanes-- but we still were supposed to wait to watch each open one present at a time, so our parent's attention could focus on each of us, ping-pong like. There were some things he got before I was old enough to open presents that I liked, including styrofoam building blocks that you could build an igloo with and then get inside.

We don't know here that he will one day have his own family of two girls and a boy to share Christmases with and I could be the aunt in Porter's story.

Charles Lamb wrote an Elia story that also comes to my mind this time of year:

CHILDREN love to listen to stories about their elders, when they were children; to stretch their imagination to the conception of a traditionary great-uncle or grandame, whom they never saw. It was in this spirit that my little ones crept about me the other evening to hear about their great-grandmother Field, . . .

We too liked to hear stories of our elders. Grandma O. told of one Christmas Eve she saw a spider on the ceiling, and thinking it was bad to kill a creature on such a night she let it live, and the family went out to Midnight Mass. When they came back, the spider had given birth and there were dozens of baby spiders "dropping all over the place" as she told it. That was too much for her and she got the broom.

We didn't sit upon our dear old dad's lap often, but this one Christmas Eve he wanted to read us "Twas the night before Christmas," and mom captured the scene that is so real it looks like a scripted movie set: the roaring fire, the stockings hung with care, the wreath, the hand-made paper chains lining the fireplace, the post war paneling and Eames-inspired chair and ottoman. 

We don't know here that my dad will die an early death from colon cancer, or that I will have more in common with Elia's tale of his Revery: Dream-Children than I would want:

"We [Alice and John] are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence, and a name”—and immediately awaking, I found myself quietly seated in my bachelor armchair . . ."

But there has been music. More music than I ever could have imagined.

For Dylan Thomas too, who closes his tale with this:

Always on Christmas night there was music. An uncle played the fiddle, a cousin sang "Cherry Ripe," and another uncle sang "Drake's Drum." It was very warm in the little house. Auntie Hannah, who had got on to the parsnip wine, sang a song about Bleeding Hearts and Death, and then another in which she said her heart was like a Bird's Nest; and then everybody laughed again; and then I went to bed. Looking through my bedroom window, out into the moonlight and the unending smoke-colored snow, I could see the lights in the windows of all the other houses on our hill and hear the music rising from them up the long, steadily falling night. I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.

Merry Christmas, One and All.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joan Fontaine: Everyone's Favorite Second Mrs. de Winter, and Much More

December 15, 2013 was the last day on earth for two Hollywood legends, Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine. I felt a connection to the O'Toole because of my high school love of T.E.Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom. My connection to Joan Fontaine is through my parents.

Impressionistic memories swirl of my mother reciting that famous first line of Dauphne DuMaurier's Rebecca: "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" . . .  My father buying me 2 Dauphne du Maurier novels, Rebecca, and My Cousin Rachel, both important to read. When I finally saw the films, there was Joan Fontaine as the second Mrs. de Winter with Laurence Olivier as her Maxim, and then there was her sister, Olivia de Havilland as Rachel Ashley, along with Richard Burton in his Hollywood debut in 1952 My Cousin Rachel. I always loved that the siblings were a matched set for for these two great novels, in spite of their own longstanding feud. (Joan also starred in the less successful 1944 film Frenchmen's Creek, wonderfully articulated by Farran Nehme as Self-Styled Siren, based on another great DuMaurier novel.)

Bringing to life a character who has no first name is a particular challenge.  Every note of Joan's performance in Rebecca is stellar, from the girl paid companion, to the unsure bride, to the chew toy for Mrs. Danvers, to the sleuth who insists on working through all the little clues. Her Mrs. de Winter is like Vivien Leigh as Scarlett---you can't imagine anyone else in the role---except much more quietly.

My father had a crush on Olivia de Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) when he was a boy, Joan was in the later swashbuckler Ivanhoe. . . My father could recite most of Kipling's Gunga Din by memory, and Joan was in the classic 1939 film.

Joan won her Oscar for Best Actress in 1941 for her Linda in Hitchcock's Suspicion, another timid bride, this time trying to suss out if her husband is trying to kill her. For me Cary Grant's performance as Johnnie is the more compelling one, but either way Joan got to be associated with the most sinister milk in film history, and I love that.

The panoply of characters that the sisters brought to life is extraordinary.  And they played against some of Hollywood's greatest leading men: Joan got Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.;, Olivia got Errol Flynn, Richard Burton, Montgomery Cliff. That's a lot of sibling connection to the golden age of Hollywood.

Joan also made a crazy movie with Billy Wilder, costarring Bing Crosby, called The Emperor's Waltz (1948). It did not turn out the way Wilder intended, and Joan said that Crosby wasn't very courteous to her, and seemed to not know who she was. But it adds a lovely bauble to her overall career.

Variety said the film "has a free-and-easy air that perfectly matches the Crosby style of natural comedy. Costar Joan Fontaine, better known for heavy, serious roles, demonstrates adaptability that fits neatly into the lighter demands and she definitely scores with charm and talent as the Crosby foil." In the clip below, a skeptical Fontaine dares Bing to sing ("The Kiss in Your Eyes").

It is a privilege to have gown up with an appreciation of this film work, and the connected memories.

Peter O'Toole--a "dangerous man"--Leaves the Stage. Now for Eternity.

I wrote this post in 2007 when Peter O'Toole earned what would be his last Oscar nomination, for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, which he would not win. This looks at his deep affinity for that first role of Lawrence of Arabia and for T.E. Lawrence himself. Requiescat in Pace.

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”

So wrote T.E.Lawrence in the introductory chapter of Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

Peter O’Toole could have written it about his own acting:

All men act, but not equally. . . .
Those who act by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the actors of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.

 Like Gable as Rhett Butler, O’Toole as the strange, enigmatic Lawrence was a feat of casting that allowed sensibility—as best we can articulate it—to be embodied. Tall and stunning, he is clearly an idealization of the short, average-looking Lawrence. But he wasn’t actually portraying the man—he was giving life to the deeply lyrical nature of the Lawrence of Seven Pillars. And in the tradition of mythic characterization, O’Toole’s extreme beauty served that purpose well.

Roger Ebert once called O’Toole a strange actor, and he is. His elegance, charm, and aristocratic manner have a discomfiting side in a way that Ricard Burton, Peter Finch, and Richard Harris did not. Sensualists all, O’Toole exudes a unique combination of generic hedonism and British eccentricity of the intellectual kind.

It’s not surprising, then, that the actor eccentric became obsessed (his own word) with the military one (I was stuck there myself for a bit, once upon a time). E.M. Forester called Seven Pillars  “a masterpiece.”  David Garnett wrote,  “As a writer, one of T.E.’s most striking qualities is his relationship with language. He uses English, both in his original writing and in his translation of The Odyssey, as an inventor, or a self-trained mechanic uses familiar materials and tools for quite new purposes. He is completely free from affectation. . . . This gives his style an astonishing, unexpected richness, which is yet the furthest removed from the sought-after richness of a Pater.”

Beyond the achievement of SP lies a universe of interesting people: Robert Graves, Bernard Shaw, B. Liddell Hart, Churchill, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Garnett, Jonathan Cape—the list is long, and particularly literary. For anyone with such yearnings, O’Toole included, it’s intoxicating.

And that’s in addition to the psychological quagmire, which can tantalize.

Lawrence was the illegitimate son of the Anglo-Irish Sir Thomas Chapman of County Westmeath and his governess, Sarah Lawrence.  Chapman left his first wife and four daughters and moved to Wales with Sarah as Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence, where Thomas Edward was born. The Lawrences eventually settled in Oxford, with five sons.

Those who have seen Lawrence of Arabia know the basic outline of how Lawrence became involved with the Arab Revolt. What's not covered in the film is where/how he came to be on that motorcycle that caused his early death at 46.

 After Lawrence returned to England, he reenlisted in the RAF under the name John Hume Ross, about which he wrote a short, startling memoir called The Mint (not published until 1955), best known for its vivid passage of extreme motorcycling. Lawrence’s true identity was shortly found out and he was discharged. He was then formally permitted to enlist in the tank corps under the name T.E. Shaw, and then to transfer back to the RAF, where he served from 1925 to March 1935, two months before his death, (which was three years after Peter Seamus was born in Ireland). It is a tortured, remarkable story, from every angle. He was not ordinary. “All right, I’m extra-ordinary.”

And so the little-known English actor from Ireland took it all on. His performance is informed by this knowledge. It hits the right spirit and tone, and it’s knowing and comfortable with its subject in an intimate way. Both Lawrence and O’Toole are Celtic souls in an English world—both loved language deeply and were unique, natural masters of it. They had many communions.

Nonetheless, O’Toole lost out to the Gregory Peck's quiet Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, and six times more. Now he is nominated for the role of Maurice in the film Venus, the custom-fit role that has been described as creepy and “still” masterful.

Maurice has elegance and wit and a love of literature and its offshoot, acting. He also insists on the pleasures of the flesh to the end—however it needs to happen. O’Toole is at ease in that “dirty old man” place, seeming to like a raw counterpoint to the frou-frou but sweet dancing in the church (a wink to The Stuntman?)

O’Toole chose a role that demands that we not just swoon over his ascots and sonnet speak—the bread and butter of his own life—but that we acknowledge and accept the side of the life force that does not quench “respectably” with age. I always had the feeling that flaunting his outré side throughout his career buffered him from feeling contempt for being so damnably adored.

The son of the bookie has been lobbying heavily recently, and the Irish bookmakers are upping his odds to win. A friend’s brother saw him at the nominee’s luncheon, and insists he was wearing heavy white powered make-up to look even more cadaverous so the Academy would say, oh, he’s going to die soon, give him the Oscar. “Yes sir, that’s my baby,” as Arthur Kennedy said in the film Lawrence of Arabia when TE's showmanship was flashing.

But the films. His body of work is the real thing. His stage work is masterful (except for that MacBeth). He is extra-ordinary. It may be that the Oscars can only measure degrees of excellence between the ordinary actors, not the dangerous ones. Too bad for Peter.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The New Yorker: Rea Irvin Covering the Season for Us.

"New York City is the capital of the American Christmas. The Puritan settlements to the north banned the holiday as Popish and pagan; and so it was, descended from the ancient Roman solstitial Saturnalia."

Thus saith John Updike in his foreward to Christmas at the New Yorker, a compendium of thematic stories, poems, humor, and art since its 1925 founding. It is a terrific book, a veritable universe of stellar writing from Thurber, Perelman, Mencken, Nabokov, Keillor, and so on.

The Puritans didn’t get their way, and so we continued to have the annual December celebrations, for some connected to the birth of Christ, but for many, not.

The weekly covers of The New Yorker---a cultural epicenter of the capital of the American Christmas--are haikus on the spectrum of the season, from the holy to the wholly kitsch.

Some of the most appealing are from Rea Irvin, the father of Eustace Tilley himself. Born in San Francisco in 1881, he had an extraordinary range of styles and visions but is not referenced much these days.

Here is Emily Gordon on Irvin, from a 2008 article in Print: "Despite his pivotal role in defining The New Yorker in its earliest years, Irvin has not garnered the attention given to his editorial counterparts, and much of his life and work remain a mystery." Wiki tells us that he died at the ripe old age of 90, in 1972, in Frederiksted, Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Irvin's Christmas Covers
The cover up top is one of my favorite: A chic turn on Gloria, In Excelsis Deo, hovering above what might be Palm Beach of the 1930s. Since he died on St. Croix, I like to think he got his vision for seeing that chic archangel.

Next I like the roaring twenties (1925), toy Daddy Fat Cat plying the Toy Ballerina with pearls, one of those hints of the adult world that ebbed and flowed over the years in the magazine.

Then there is a pair of strange Santa depictions. 1926 speaks to the universal need for Santa, with ethnically diverse men all sporting Santa hats and fake beards. A very global vision for its day.


1931 brings a disturbing, hulking Kris Kringle, menacing what I imagine is a "nonbeliever in Santa" while he sleeps with a garish, serpent-like toy. Some tribes believe that demons can enter the body through the ear. Let’s leave it at that.

1932 brought a trio of angels bearing tokens of Wall Street: a banker's tie, box of cigars, and basket of cash. Their upward gaze suggests they are entreating the Higher Power with these early gifts, which is a little chilling given the Crash of 1929 and Great Depression with so many people's lives ruined. 

1944 saw a somber cover for a readership still at war.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

It's an Angry Life: Capra's Confounding Holiday Classic

Matt was a little ahead of the calendar in his midNovember rewatch of It's a Wonderful Life. I heartedly agree with the darkness in the film, which I once framed in terms of  its anger,  and love its final joy, along with its depiction of prayer, all things an Irish Catholic knows a bit about. A seasonal repost.

Several years ago Dan Eisenberg of put out a call for a one-day Blog-a-thon, when those things were happening, on It’s a Wonderful Life. He wanted people to either explain what all the fuss is about, or agree that it could be added to Mary and Yale’s Academy of the Overrated, (joining Gustav Mahler, Isak Dinesen, Karl Jung, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Vincent Van Gogh, Ingmar Bergman).

Oh, the fuss is well deserved.

I love him, dear Lord. Watch over
him tonight.

Please, God. Something's the matter
with Daddy.

Please bring Daddy back.

It’s a Wonderful Life tells a story that would exist whether Philip Van Doren Stern had ever written his 1943 short story it's based on, “The Greatest Gift,” or not. It’s part of being a sentient person to wonder what would things be like if you weren’t here, either from your death now, or backdating the idea to never being on the planet.

But what raises it up to a great film is its earthiness and common-sense sensibility. It draws situations with just a few strokes that have deep resonance for the experience of the solid middle class after World War II and following generations, like the family dinner scene before the high school graduation dance, the father’s fatigue at working at a job he doesn’t like, and George’s ideas of getting out: “I'm shakin' the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I'm gonna see the world.”

But most importantly, it captures the anger that lies just beneath the surface of so much of “nice” domestic life, a byproduct of all the primal life forces held in a precarious balance for family life to be possible at all.

Jimmy Stewart’s performance is strong throughout, and his anger is particularly convincing in various scenes.

In the phone call scene with Mary he portrays “panic of commitment” without cliché.

Script direction:
George can stand it no longer. He drops the phone with a crash grabs Mary by the shoulders and shakes her. Mary begins to cry.

“Now you listen to me. I don't want any plastics and I don't want any ground floors. And I don't want to get married *ever* to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do.”

He’s angry and his sexual energy is dangerous as he’s drawn to Mary, his lust overwhelming his wanderlust. This is not a sentimental vignette. It is a clear-eyed look at one of the age-old realities of civilization: men don’t particularly want to participate.

George’s anger at Uncle Billy when he discovers the money has been lost is sharp: “Where's that money, you silly stupid old fool? Where's that money? Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me.”

When George gets home he isn’t able to tell Mary what’s happened, he can only RAGE against the pedestrian details of his life: the broken banister, the kid banging on the piano, how cold the house is, the teacher who sent ZuZu home sick.

He is a hulking presence, terrorizing the family with his anger:

Mary (in an outburst) “George, why must you torture the children?”

That’s when George runs out of the house and to his appointed destiny with Clarence.

Is Daddy in trouble?

Shall I pray for him?

Yes, Janie, pray very hard.

Me, too?

You too, Tommy.
(on phone)
Hello, Uncle Billy?

George’s sojourn in the universe where he never existed is carefully plotted, and the details are deep. The town is ugly and the people mean and crass. He finds his mother is a harsh, suspicious landlady and Mary a withered, mousy woman. Mr. Gower is a rummy child murderer, his brother is in the cemetery and by extension, all the men in the transport because his brother wasn’t there to save them. The dots are strongly connected, and his actual impact on these lives is clear. Again, I see no mawkish sentiment here.

George’s nightmare is short-lived, as he returns to the bridge and prays to live again: "I want to live again. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again."

The snow returns and he is back to his life. My favorite part is him running through the town; it is the perfect visualization of a feeling of unbridled hope and joy. For the moment, anger—-which is fueled by the maddening details of life and experience-- is banished by the desire for life itself.

I think it is an excellent film. I think if Clarence’s line “Ridiculous of you to think of killing yourself for money,” helps one person gain perspective and stop from hurting themselves when things are grim, then it’s more than an excellent film. And I like its realistic depiction of prayer. It reminds us that we don’t know how grace works, but people have experienced its power, and so it should show up occasionally in our cinema lives in a real way.

Here’s a great gift from Imdb: the whole script is online.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Two Murders of John, Across the Universe, That Changed the World

There’s a cosmic intersection between John Lennon and John F. Kennedy, besides both being named John and both being murdered by guns. I first noticed it during the Paley Center for Media’s documentary festival in 2010. Its October lineup opened with two films about John Lennon: the bio pic Nowhere Boy, and the new American Masters documentary, LENNONYC; and it closed with a new film from cinema verite pioneer Robert Drew, In the Company of JFK, a compilation from four of his extraordinary films about Kennedy, with startling footage from the unprecedented access he was given .

These films were chosen for their subject matter and obvious merits. It was just happenstance that it meant the festival was bookended by two of the most culturally important murders of the 20th century.

Then, on November 22, 2010, on the 47th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, PBS premierd LENNONYC nationally, bringing the two deaths near each other again. It’s as though the universe itself still needs to reconcile the violent, early death of these two icons of the last century who meant so much to so many people.

Words are flying out like
endless rain into a paper cup
They slither while they pass
They slip away across the universe
Pools of sorrow waves of joy
are drifting thorough my open mind
Possessing and caressing me

Jai guru deva om
Nothing's gonna change my world

John, Pre & Post Beatle

The two Lennon films were to honor the 70th anniversary of his birth on October 9, 1940 and acknowledge the 30th anniversary of his death on December 8, 1980. The bio pic Nowhere Boy takes a lot of poetic license, but the Quarrymen who were at the Paley Center screening said that it captured the essence of their teenage years together, rising from a skiffle band to rock & roll. LENNONYC captures the last 10 years of John’s life in New York with Yoko (and Los Angeles without her). The archival material is amazing, with home movies and studio footage you’ve never seen.

In the fictional Nowhere Boy we meet the boy who was abandoned by both his parents when they divorced and was raised by his Aunt Mimi(his mother’s sister). His uncle dies early, and he reconnects with his mother for a few years before she’s hit by a car and dies. He’s on his way to Germany with fellow townsmen Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and you know the rest.

LENNONYC captures John’s story with Yoko, after the band broke up in 1970. It’s a story that is not as well known as the Beatles years. As Rob Salem of the Toronto Star says, it’s about the various John Lennons: “peace-seeking protester; avant-garde artist; philandering party boy; Nixon-designated national threat; beleaguered refugee and blissfully domesticated dad.”

Some of the best moments in LENNONYC are from producers Roy Cicala and Jack Douglas, and guitarist Earl Slick who bring the musician John to life with their stories. They articulate beautifully the sheer talent in John’s music, which is the root of why we all fell in love with him in the first place. What's also striking about the documentary is how much voiceover they use of Lennon himself. It really feels like he's still with us.

And then, on that horrible day in December, 1980, when John and Oko were returning home, a madman shoots John four times in the back. He was pronounced dead 15 minutes later. What a shock. How is it possible that a Beatle is murdered in New York, on his own front doorstep? Our rock stars have died in plane crashes, they’ve died from drugs, but pop culture icons just aren’t murdered in cold blood, are they?

Images of broken light which
dance before me like a million eyes
That call me on and on across the universe
Thoughts meander like a
restless wind inside a letter box
they tumble blindly as
they make their way across the universe

John, on November 22, 1963

Robert Drew’s film A President to Remember: In the Company of JFK draws on footage from four of his early films: Primary; Adventures on the New Frontier; Crisis; and Faces of November. It is an astonishing new work that captures JFK from the Wisconsin primary against Humphrey, through to his state funeral.

What Drew’s film doesn’t touch on is this cosmic coincidence: Wiki tells us that on November 22, 1963, CBS Morning News ran a 5-minute piece about Beatlemania that was sweeping Great Britain. The piece was to be rebroadcast in the evening, but it was canceled because of the assassination. Walter Cronkite then decided to run it on the CBS Evening News on December 10. It lead to a spike in sales of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and 8 weeks later the Beatles were at John F. Kennedy International Airport (which had just been renamed on December 24, 1963).

Kennedy’s assassination still haunts the country. The Lee Harvey Oswald/ Jack Ruby explanation becomes less and less satisfactory, but the country had to move on. Some say The Beatles invading ten weeks later were part of that healing process with their youth and style and new sound.

“Anybody here seen my old friends John”

Let’s imagine John Lennon on February, 7, 1964, arriving at JFK airport with the Beatles, full of excitement in the rush of their gargantuan success at home and number one hit here. Even with the depth of his poetic soul and all his hidden mysticism, he could not have imagined that 46 years later, a documentary about the last nine years of his own life—-which artfully deals with his murder—-would be premiering to an American audience on the date that JFK was assassinated. We will not know their like again. Such is the nature of the journey of souls, across the universe . . .

Sounds of laughter shades of life
are ringing through my open ears
exciting and inviting me
Limitless undying love which
shines around me like a million suns
It calls me on and on across the universe

John Lennon on his song “Across the Universe": “It's one of the best lyrics I've written. In fact, it could be the best." Rolling Stone interview 1971

(JL NYC photo ©Bob Gruen. The Quarryman Leslie Kearney 1957©2010 The Quarrymen. Andy Warhol/JL photo in the Bar Louis, Hotel Fauchere, Milford, PA taken by Lance Mannon. JFK images are screen grabs from the Drew film.)