Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"And Let the Rest, of the World, Go By": Streep & Redford Simply Are New Year's Eve for Me

One of my favorite cinematic New Year's is in Out of Africa, Sydney Pollack's lyrical film loosely based on Isak Dinesen's memoir. Karen Blixen and Denys Hatton meet up at the British East Africa colonials' New Year's Eve dance as 1918 becomes 1919.

They waltz to a tune played on a solo violin that is just audible enough to make out:  "Let the Rest of the World Go By," words [not heard] by J. Keirn Brennan, music by Ernest R Ball. It's anachronistic for this scene, because it was only written in 1919, so it couldn't be played on December 31, 1918, but it's close-enough for Hollywood work. If I had to bet, I would say that Pollack's mother sang it to him as a child. That's the most frequent comment on all the YouTube versions, and my mother sang it to me too. (It must be in the manual they've been giving out since 1919 when you become a mother.) It's part of YouTube's endless charm that you can learn that a detail about a very small part of your life can have such a widespread connection.

The solo violin then goes into Auld Lang Syne. The scene is a beautiful visualization of nostalgia and melancholy—and doomed love if you know the story, although you can guess even if you don't—as one is want to feel on the last day of the year.  And Meryl Streep and Robert Redford are the perfect actors to bring these feelings to life: so physically beautiful, Hollywood avatars of the ideal of "man" and "woman" and all that that means.

Gordan MacRae and
Jo Stafford have a beautiful rendition of the song. They correctly sing  the waltz beat at the very beginning, which most versions do not. The second note is clearly a half note; I don't know why most people make it 2 even quarter notes.  Thanks to very much to Duke University library for scanning the original sheet music. It also shows the intro verse, which they do not sing.

Here is the scene from the film

But melancholy does not get the last word, even in this year of unrelenting global pain.  I have never thought about next year "being better." That kind of comparison never appealed to me. But it is an opportunity—however arbitrary and artificial the calibrating—to do things differently, to handle things differently and see things in a new light, and I try to hang on to that idea of "freshness," of the New Year's baby image, as long as possible. 

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets/Little Gidding

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Merry Christmas, 2014 Edition

There is little mirth in the world today, and especially closer to home in my beloved Gotham. The word "merry" seems very out of place this year.

So it is with a heavy heart I go to sing in the celebrations to welcome the Word Made Flesh, the Son of God by Name,  to the world. The juxtaposition of this Holy Night against man's inhumanity to man that seems like a bad movie plot right now.  Or a twisted Twitter trope: Baby Jesus, YOU HAD ONE JOB: PRINCE OF PEACE. (Ok, bad theology, but feeling frustrated and disillusioned with the human race He came to save.)

For those who enter these churches, I am glad that they will find beauty in the music by some of the city's finest musicians. And sometimes small contributions, to specific individuals within your reach, is all you have.

Isaiah 9:6, and later, Handel

For unto us a Child is born,
unto us
a Son is given:
unto us
a Son is given
and the government shall be upon His shoulder:
and His name shall be called
Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

(painting: Pieter Bruegel the Elder)

The Carol of a Chrismtas Carol: God Rest You Merry[ily], Gentlemen

The choir of King's College, Cambridge, is in the middle of it's Advent Lessons & Carols service, singing this classic carol. Their phrasing is impeccable, and you can hear the comma between "merry" and "gentlemen." Thank goodness.  But that is not always the case, leading to several hundred years of 'happy guys,' rather than a soul 'being well and happily kept' by God.

I love that Charles Dickens chose "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen" to represent the whole kit and kaboodle to Scrooge.

" the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror”

This carol was first written down in the 18th century, with no known composer.

As a song it is a triumph of clear, simple exposition of faith: the Son of God came by name to save us from sin and bring us comfort and joy. That’s what it’s all about, Charlie Brown.

As syntax, it is a little less successful, because "merry" is an adverb in hiding describing ‘how God should rest you’ where rest is the sense of "keep" or make," and not an adjective describing gentlemen, even when that comma goes astray (God rest you merry gentlemen). Which, I’m sorry to say, it did in the juvenile edition of the Dickens story that I bought for my niece. Sigh.

There is also the "ye" versus "you." Because it feels like it's from Merry Olde England, most people reach for the "ye." But "ye" is the nominative case, and so would not have been used as the object.  And we know this because in one of the earliest surviving written documents for the song, from 1760 London, when thees and thous were in abundance, the word is "you." It's also what Dickens transcribed in 1843 for his story, and it's what Bing Crosby so clearly sings, so that settles it.

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day,
To save us all from Satan's power
When we were gone astray:

O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:

O tidings ...

(update from 2009 post)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Today, 12/21/14, the exceptional actress Billie Whitelaw died at 82. I did not see her as Winnie in Happy Days (pictured above), but did see Fiona Shaw at BAM in 2008, and wrote this post that the woman buried in the sand, with just ritual and verbal/intellectual exercise to pass the time, defines a blogger. Yikes. Beckett, as genius: check.

Happy days are here again,
The skies above are clear again,
So let's sing a song of cheer again,
Happy days are here again.

I was never a student of Samuel Beckett, Ireland’s great, bleak ultramodernist, master of black humor. When I was at college at Southampton University (England, not Long Island), one of the dons performed Krapp’s Last Tape. It was compelling, and the intimate nature of the performance was memorable, but it did not send me running to a Beckett tutorial.

The chance to see Fiona Shaw, however, sent me running to BAM for her limited engagement in Happy Days in 2008. I went with few preconceived notions. I had seen photos of Irene Worth somewhere along the way. Her aging music hall woman, with flapper headband, stuck in the sand never looked very appealing. I did not know of Billie Whitelaw's embodiment, which is immediately more appealing.

But from the moment I walked into the Brooklyn theater, I was carried away. Tom Pye’s “mound” is a visually stunning mixture of English seaside gone nightmare and post apocalyptic landscape. The lighting is piercingly LCD bright, unnatural, startling.

An elegant white parachute material curtain rises to the ceiling, and when it gently falls, Winnie is there, buried to her waist in the sand, gently folded over herself, with her head and arms resting on the ground.

A loud, jarring, ugly alarm sounds—jolting everyone--and Winnie wakes up. Her day is book ended by the buzzer that tells her to sleep.

She begins her morning rituals by brushing her teeth, and reading the toothpaste tube.

The absurdity of the situation is heightened by the familiarity of it—-both in the normalcy of brushing your teeth in the morning, and in the fears being embodied before your very eyes: the fear of being stuck, or buried alive, or isolated from all humanity.

It turns out Winnie is not completely isolated. There is Willie, her husband, who lives in a hole to the side of her mound. He grunts monosyllabic answers to her questions and reads headlines from his paper. Winnie speaks of how wonderful it will be if/when he moves to the front of her mound and she’ll be able to see him without straining her neck.

The rest of Winnie’s world is a parasol and a black bag that contains her mirror, a revolver, and a hat. The sun is merciless, and she is baking. The hat offers a little protection, as does the parasol, until it mysteriously blows up.

Winne As Blogger.
Winnie’s life is ritual punctuated by verbal utterances. Her conversation is peppered with quotes from Shakespeare, Milton, Browning, Keats, Byron, authors who make her feel less alone. (Here is a guide to them--scroll down to the Literary Allusions). Even her oft repeated “sorrow keeps breaking in” is apparently from Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

The fear that she articulates is that there will be no one to listen to her. "Just to know that in theory you hear me even though in fact you don't is all I need." Just how much of blogging did Beckett foreshadow?

All of our voices are “out there” in the barren landscape of the blogosphere in the hope that someone is listening. In the hope that we don’t come across as the droning, tedious wife. We bring as much of life as we can into the void, soldiering on through anxiety and angst. From the other perspective, Winnie herself is the consummate blogger, with her daily entries of conversation.

Back in her theatrical world, what comes across most in Act I is the life force at its purest. Fiona Shaw is luminous. Her “chatter,” as it has been called, is not grating in the least, but engaging, measured, rhythmically inflected, with extraordinary facial gestures and arm movements.

There is a lot going on here. The piece could be a metaphor for what happens to married couples when they settle into the coexisting grunting state. Willie as the henpecked husband, who has shut himself off from his wife’s eternal yammering. Winnie can’t stop yammering because she literally can do nothing else. Willie could leave the mound, could leave Winnie, and we have no idea why he doesn’t.

The gun is an ominous presence. Winnie kisses it, and could use it to end her situation, at least in Act 1.

In Act II, with no relative time to Act I, Winnie wakes up and is buried up to her neck; she can no longer do her morning rituals, or reach the gun. Winnie doesn’t comment directly on her worsening condition. She continues to try to organize her time as best she can, knowing that the song must be sung before the bell to sleep. That she shows no outward sign of complete despair is deeply unnerving.

At the end of the play, Willie moves to the front of the mound, ‘dressed to kill” as it says in the play in formal mourning trousers and top hat, and Winnie is excited that he is reaching out to her. She sings “The Merry Widow Waltz” (I love you so) since she can no longer open the music box. The last moment is Willie reaching up toward her, and the two looking at each other.

But is he reaching for the gun? Is it to use on himself, or her? It is a haunting ambiguity.

I grew attached to Winnie in the course of the play, drawn in by her spirit and determinism. “This will have been another happy day.” I could say the same from my mound here in Lucky for me Steed always responds in full sentences and doesn’t like guns at all. In fact we BBBBBUUUUUUUUZZZZZZZ.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Vistations of "A Christmas Carol"

 A Christmas Carol was first published today, December 19, 1843.  I wrote this post in 2009 when I saw the Disney 3-D version written by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jim Carrey with  Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, and Cary Elwes. It still bothers me that Scrooge is not shorthand for a redeemed soul. Read on.

* * * * *

I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little post, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant,
M.A., December 2009

Stave One: The First of the Three Versions

Seeing the new 3D Disney version over Thanksgiving sent me off to finally read the novella  to see if they were making stuff up. Their Ghost of Christmas Past looked like a cousin of Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast, and at one point Scrooge seemed to be paying homage to The Rescuers, so I was concerned, although overall the adaptation was very true and enjoyable.

Turns out the GOCP depiction was accurate. Dickens’s description of the first spirit is elaborate, protracted, and very odd. The figure is old and young: “being now a thing with one arm, now with one leg, now with twenty legs, now a pair of legs without a head, now a head without a body.”

It holds a piece of holly in one hand, and there’s more:

But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.”

So the depiction wasn’t a Disneyfication: it is very much like a candle, and it carries its own candle snuffer, which it will use to take leave of Scrooge (Dickens never uses “he” or “she” for this spirit.) Turning Scrooge into a 3” high person as he’s fleeing the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, however, was very silly, and not of Dickens. The depiction of Christmas Present is true, and he ages to the point of death at the stroke of midnight just like Dickens says he does.

All in all, the Disney version gives life to the story, although if you want a serious film experience, you must, must go the 1951 Alastair Sim version. That’s a brilliant, artful adaptation with Sim’s masterful portrayal of every cell, fiber, and nuance of Ebeneezer. I believe that the magic is because both the actor and the director were of Celtic blood. More about that here.


Stave Two: The Second of the Three Versions

The Paley Center recently screened Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. It was the first animated special created specifically for TV, predating Rudolph by 2 years. The Magoo character first appeared in a theatrical cartoon short in 1949 (The Ragtime Bear.) Jule Styne and Bob Merrill were hired to write the score, and then went on to write the score for Funny Girl shortly after.

The songs are good. “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” “Ringle, Ringle” and “We’re Despicable” are appealing but not as sticky or classic as “Silver and Gold” and Holly, Jolly Christmas.” And they decided to reorder the Spirits, so that the Ghost of Christmas Present comes first, then Christmas Past. Ye shall not tamper with Dickens!

I like to think that this sacrilege is why Mr. Magoo didn’t entirely enter the Christmas canon, but it’s more likely that the whole ruse of his being dangerously myoptic seemed progressively less funny as society became more sensitized to people with disabilities.

Stave Three: The Last of the Spirits

The manuscript itself. With all these media versions swirling about, I made the pilgrimage down to see it sitting quietly encased in J. P. Morgan’s study, this year turned to page 38. The script handwriting is dense, tightly spaced.

The New York Times partnered with the Morgan Library to photograph the entire manuscript and allow us to see where and how Charles changed his mind.

One change is that he had a tangent about Hamlet being a chump, which he decided not to use. A scholar suggested Shakeapeare was too popular to attack like that, and it does have the scent of an Oedipal issue.

Dickens did keep his hilarious issues with the expression “dead as a door-nail.”

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

Hilarious! I love it!!

Stave 4: The End of It

This tale has not been out of print since it was written in 1843. It helped to create the Victorian Christmas celebrations that took root. Mr. Fezziwig alone could have done that. The fact that he wrote it in 6 weeks is the stuff of genius.

As a character of world literature, Scrooge was given a raw deal. His name is associated with abject misanthropy. Yet the point of the story is his (secular) redemption: at the end we are told he is filled with charity and love and generosity. He is the embodiment of the secular spirit Christmas; his name could have come down to us as its synonym. Why doesn't anyone remember that?

“He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. . . . and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”

Maybe in this century the tide will turn for him. He is the avatar of hope: life can harden our hearts, but Scrooge reminds us every year that it can be different. The past does not have to have power over our future. Thank you, Mr. Dickens. What a beautiful gift you have given us.