December 13th, 2007

Why I Despise "It's A Wonderful Life."

Since our home is mostly mercifully free of TV (except for Masterpiece Theater) I manage to avoid the flood of Christmas ktich that fills the airwaves at this time of year, and don't miss it a bit. OK, I always enjoy the orginal Boris Karloff narrated "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," with its wonderful score. I can stand "A Charlie Brown Christmas" about once every five years, if I happen to be where it's on. And I liked the orginal "Miracle on 34th St.", with Edmund Gwenn as "Kris Kringle," but I've seen it a couple times and don't need it again. All the rest range from shruggable sacharrine to utter dreck, but the one I really, really loathe is Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life."

I'm sure every human being in America knows the plot: George Bailey, after a life of virtuous self-denial, suffers one last setback, and stands on a bridge contemplating suicide and wishing he'd never been born. Clarence, the trainee angel, appears to him to dissuade him by showing all the sorrow that would have occured if he hadn't been there.

It's not just that the happy ending is a cheat: even if George is able to replace the missing money from the donations of his grateful community, he's still due for a raking over the coals from whatever auditors or regulators existed at the time, at a minimum. And the fact that you put the money back is not a defense to a charge of embezzlement, although it may be a mitigation.

No, it's that if you have known someone who committed suicide, have attempted suicide, or have contemplated suicide, you know that angels don't appear to ordinary schmoes to lead them back from the brink. I'm sure that many people may have prayed, or sought religious guidance, or just been dissuaded by "feeling the love of Jesus" or some such, but that's not the same. Perhaps it's just that George Bailey is so damned saintly that he's worth a miraculous intercession, but that raises the same problem as happens with other "miraculous" rescues. Someone is saved from some disaster, and gives thanks that God saved them, totally ignoring that dozens equally innocent were not spared.

So George Bailey's a saint and was saved by a miracle, and the rest of you--aren't and won't be. Swell.

Oh, I get it that the message is supposed to be that we should look back on our own lives and take comfort in the good we've done. Well, what if you haven't got much? What I really, really want is for someone to do a no-holds-barred claws-out satire on this theme. The angel does a review for the "George" figure and finds that if his wife, who's loyally stuck with him through his rocky life, hadn't agreed to go out with him, she'd have had a really spectacular life with the guy she would have met five minutes later; his kids have all inherited genes for an incurable disease; people who relied on his bad advice had their lives really screwed up while he went obliviously on his way. (As a former lawyer, I understand the potential of this--.) And the angel ends up saying, "Oh, well, might as well jump, then."

Maybe in these days of "YouTube," someone will do it. Until then, I think I'll go home and rerun "Nightmare Before Christmas"--.

"The Klezmatics", Alverno College, Dec. 8

On Saturday evening, Dec. 8th, we went to the Pittman Auditorium at Alverno College for "The Klezmatics Second Annual Woody Guthrie Happy Joyous Hanukkah Tour."

We got exposed to klezmer music through "Simply Folk," the wonderful, eclectic program on Wisconsin Public Radio. Through that show, I discovered Stan Rogers, the Berrymans, Greg Brown, zydeco (Beau Soleil!), lots and lots of Celtic music, and klezmer. Klezmer is the original "fusion" music. Klezmer musicians were often itinerant, travelling from town to town playing for weddings and celebrations, and, of course, as musicians will, picking up tunes and riffs whereever they went. Consequently, the archetypical klezmer song is a Russian-sounding tune, sung in Yiddish, and played at the frenetic tempo of a fast Greek dance in a wailing Mid-Eastern minor key.

That being said, The Klezmatics are to klezmer as The Chieftains are to irish music. Having an utterly solid grounding in the traditional canon, they have evolved beyond it, creating new musics and working with a wide ranging list of collaborators world wide. Part of their first set was taken up by a multi-part klezmer informed jazz piece called "Davening," which was originally written for Pilobolus Dance Theatre.

Interspersed with other traditional pieces were the Woody Guthrie songs, perhaps to the uninitiated, a most unlikely sounding collaboration. As we were told, Guthrie's second wife, Marjorie Mazia, was Jewish and the daughter of Aliza Greenblatt, an influential Yiddish poet. Therefore, the household, which included children Arlo, Nora, Cathy, and Joady, "observed all celebrations" as the band put it, and Guthrie wrote Hanukkah songs. Although he typed out the words, Guthrie did not know musical notation (he played "by ear") and so the orginal tunes were lost with his death. In 1999, Nora Guthrie brought the typescript to the Klezmatics and asked if they would write new tunes for them. The band was glad to oblige. Some of the songs, like "Hanukkah Bell," and "Hanukkah Candle," are simple and sweet. Others, such as "Dancing Round the Hanukkah Tree" are more sprightly and take a wry view of the combined celebration season.

We were very glad to have heard these lost gems recovered, and displayed along with a selection of Klezmatic's classics like "Manhattan Man." The band played to a full house and an audience that seemed to have enjoyed the concert as much as we did.

"The Golden Compass," the movie

The evening of the 12th, we got together with a dozen or so local fans to see "The Golden Compass." Everyone there thought the movie very good, both those of us who had read the novel, and those who hadn't.

It's been a few years since I read the book, but to my recollection, the film stuck fairly closely to the text, although of course with some compressions and warps due to distilling a lengthy novel into the space of a standard movie. I was very favorably impressed by the vizualization of Pullman's world, integrating new alternate architecture spires into the Oxford and London skylines, and displaying the "magic" based technologies such as Mrs. Coulter's airship,the self-propelled Hansom cab, and the nasty spy-flies. A very strong performance by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra is well supported by Nicole Kidman as the overtly wicked but conflicted Mrs. Coulter, veteran actors Jim Carter as the Lord of the "Gyptians," Sam Elliot as the aeronaut Lee Scoresby, and the voice of Ian McKellen as armored bear Iorek Brynison. Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig) is off-screen for most of the movie, so there's not really enough there to judge by (although I note that "Lord Asriel" has the same swaggering walk as "James Bond"--). Kidman's Mrs. Coulter is a "piece of work": she cruelly maltreats Lyra in order to enforce her petty will, then demands "Now kiss me!" as a closure. But then later on, she risks her own person to save Lyra from the intercission process--. There's something subtly "wrong" about Kidman's performance, but I'm not quite sure on one viewing whether it is Kidman taking too much pleasure in playing the villain, or the twistedness of the character herself coming through. Either way she is chilling. And her golden monkey is just as odious as one would expect from the books, not only echoing Fu Manchu, but expressing her inner character as vicious and spiteful.

We did not agree with critics of the film, either religious or cinematic, both of whom are writing with foreknowlege of where the story goes after this. In fact, although it's clear that the Magisterium (or some of them) are the bad guys, this script does not contain any overt attack on the Church, religion, or God, so it isn't really true that the film "promotes atheism" save insofar as it is part of a large whole which may eventually do so. Ironically, a common complaint from the cinema side is that the anti-religion knives do NOT come out, but again they are reading ahead, since the more explict critiques of religion and Lord Asriel's plan to overthrow "The Authority" do not come out until later in the series. (I was also dismayed by the ignorant film writer who held out that you could recognize the Magisterium as clergy by their gowns--. In Britain, even that of Pullman's Lyra, lawyers, judges, and public officals wear robes of office, as well as university scholars. In the dinner scene, the Master of Jordan wears his, although admittedly the purple cording seems to owe more to Hogwarts than Oxford. The Magisterium assassin's "M" collar tabs seem like a clerical shadow of an SS tunic--.)

All in all, very well done. Fans of the books in our party were not disappointed, and those new to them were asking where to find them. We all eagerly look forward to the next installment.