Archive for December, 2006

20
Dec
06

I shall keep my good humour…..

I am one of those old fashioned souls who still loves the Christmas season. I love the lights. I love the music (Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, mind you, not the rubbish that passes for Christmas music nowadays). I love the way my childhood memories come back to me every year, Christmas presents from the past.

I love the way my twelve year old stepson gets all excited whenever we go out on one of our Christmas traditions. It might be going to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”, or maybe riding out to Attleboro to see the lights at LaSallette shrine, or it might be something as simple as taking the long way home so we can see all the Christmas lights that decorate the surrounding area, or watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” together. He has a ball, and so do I.

Now there are some people to whom Christmas is simply an annoyance, and I can understand how they feel. This time of year has become cheapened and commercialized, to be sure, but I suppose that’s the price we pay for living in a capitalist society. It is hectic, it is frustrating, it is expensive. It is a pain in the ass at times, I agree.

To those who have difficulty finding joy in this season, I would offer these words:

In an early scene in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, Scrooge’s nephew Fred Holywell chides his uncle for sneering at Christmas, saying, “I have always thought of Christmas…as a good time…when men open up their shuttered hearts to one another.” Later, in a more dramatic scene, Marley’s ghost indignantly answers Scrooge’s comment that he was always a “good man of business”, exclaiming, “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business! Mercy, charity, benevolence, forbearance, were all my business! The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the vast, comprehensive ocean of my business!”

There are so many ways we, as members of the same human race despite our differences, can “make mankind our business“. A friendly smile to that harried clerk at the cash register can brighten that person’s day. Perhaps, if you happen to be one the long suffering souls who works behind that cash register, a friendly word to a customer can make the difference between a good day and bad one, for you and for them. Or maybe it can take the form of an encouraging word to a co-worker who’s having a bad day. Or maybe holding back an angry word to a family member, even if you really want to strangle them. Perhaps it’s helping a senior citizen struggling with their holiday packages, or a lost child crying in the store looking for its mother

I am nominally a Catholic, but really just nominally. When it comes to contemplating the divine, one person’s religious belief is usually as valid as another’s. I do not know if Jesus of Nazareth was really the Son of God, as many believe. But I happen to know that at least some of what Jesus, divine or not, is reported to have said makes as much sense in our time as it did in his. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, “Forgive your enemies”, and (my personal favorite) “Judge not lest ye be judged”. Whether or not you believe in the divinity of Jesus, these are good words to live by, and it would be a much better world if everyone did live by them, regardless of their stated religion (or lack thereof). When you get right down to it, these aren‘t necessarily religious beliefs at all. They are simply a blueprint for living in harmony with the rest of the human race.

To me the real meaning of Christmas is that human beings can, when they put their minds to it, be genuinely decent to one another. And if we can remember to do that at this time of the year, perhaps we can even try to “make mankind our business” throughout the year.

And so, like the irrepressible Fred Holywell, “I shall keep my good humour, and wish you a Merry Christmas.”

–Smith

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14
Dec
06

My Favorite Christmas Carol

You could stage a version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with sock puppets and I’ll probably watch it. Ever since I was a child, this has been one of my favorite stories. Maybe it’s the idea that there is good in everyone, and therefore no one is beyond redemption, that appeals to me, but for whatever reason I never miss an opportunity to watch one of the many screen adaptations of this timeless classic when they’re on TV as they inevitably are this time of year.

The International Movie Database (IMDB.com, and one of my favorite sites, by the way) lists no less than 25 different versions of “A Christmas Carol“, and while I can’t claim to have seen them all, I’ve certainly seen quite a few. I have watched Alistair Sim, Reginald Owen, Patrick Stewart, Mr. Magoo, and even Rowan Atkinson (as Ebenezer Blackadder in one of the stranger twists on this story) all bring credit to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, my favorite version of all time is the one made in 1984 featuring the incomparable George C. Scott as Scrooge.

This will probably be on sometime this month, but if you miss it, you owe it to yourself to buy or rent this DVD. This is, in my opinion, simply the very best version of this story ever filmed. It is a dark version, to be sure, but the incomparable acting, not only from Scott but from the supporting cast, make this a version you simply have to see, no matter how many times you’ve seen other versions of “A Christmas Carol”.

What makes this version really stand out is the somber gravitas that the cast bring to their respective roles. Lines we’ve heard dozens of times in the past take on a whole new intensity, and each character becomes more real and believable in the hands of this wonderful ensemble.

George C. Scott was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for this role. It is to his everlasting credit that rather than sleepwalking through this oft-portrayed role of Scrooge, he instead gave it a fresh interpretation that was, in my opinion, one of his finest performances ever. He wisely did not attempt a British accent, instead delivering his lines in that famous gravelly voice. His Scrooge is not merely a cranky old man (as he is so often portrayed), but a man who harbors a profound anger against the world. As he is visited in turn by each of the Three Spirits, we understand how this anger took root, grew, and ultimately strangled his soul. As he is forced to review his life, we see him alternately softening, and then relapsing again into unrepentant obstinacy. And in the great dramatic scene when he, kneeling and weeping at his own grave, begs for mercy as he attempts to convince the third spirit of his repentance and desire to alter his life, we see a man who has been utterly broken and brought to his knees literally and figuratively. Scott has made Scrooge utterly believable and painfully human.

Impressive as Scott’s performance is, the ensemble of supporting actors contributes significantly the this version’s dark beauty. Fred Holywell, Scrooge’s nephew, is an excellent example of this. Often portrayed as an affable buffoon, here he is played by Roger Rees with an emotional intensity missing from earlier portrayals. When he implores Scrooge, “I ask nothing of you. I want nothing from you. Why can’t we be friends?”, we see in his face not only his frustration, but his pain at Scrooge’s self-imposed separation from his only living relative. It is a moving performance, and one of the movie’s most dramatic scenes.

Even more magnificent is the performance given by the wonderful English actor Frank Finlay as Scrooge’s late partner, Jacob Marley. In most versions of this tale, the scene with Marley tends to be a bit of a low point in the film, simply because it’s difficult to portray a dead man convincingly, and the results are usually just plain silly (ooooh, look, it‘s a scary ghost…….not!) In this version, it is perhaps the most riveting scene in the whole movie. Marley’s entrance, as the locks on Scrooge’s door fly open of their own accord and the sound of chains rattling echo throughout the house, is wonderfully creepy. But Finlay’s Marley is no ethereal spirit. He is a tortured soul, inspiring both horror and pity. Marley may be a ghost, but his rage and regret over a life wasted on the pursuit of wealth, and his despair at his realization that his sins are now beyond redress, are still very human. As portrayed by Finlay, we have no problem believing that even the flinty Scrooge would be shaken by this nightmarish apparition. Finlay really steals the scene here, something not easy to do when you’re opposite George C. Scott.

And it just goes on and on, one remarkable performance after another, making it seem like you’re experiencing this story for the first time. Edward Woodward (remember him from the Equalizer?) is by turns both jovial and menacing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. When he delivers the famous line, “it may well be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than MILLIONS like this poor man’s child” he is no longer a jolly Santa Claus surrogate, but an avenging angel who gives Scrooge a much needed verbal spanking.

Susannah York is a wonderfully tart tongued Mrs. Cratchit, and David Warner brings marvelous depth to the long suffering Bob Cratchit, a man who goes through life bearing the triple crosses of poverty, a sick child, and an insufferable boss. His face alternately shows his cheerful courage, and also, at times, his weariness, in the face of intolerable circumstances. Later, in the scene in which Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come the Cratchit family after the death of Tiny Tim, Warner’s performance, while hardly uttering a word, will move you to tears.

One final note should be made about the musical device used in this movie to unite certain themes. Composer Nicolas Bicat uses a variation of the Wagnerian “leitmotif”, whereby a musical theme becomes associated with a certain character. Here Bicat uses two themes to unite groups of characters. The first, a plaintive theme consisting of two falling phrases, is first heard when Jacob Marley enters Scrooge’s room. This is particularly effective, for instead of the “scary” music one might expect to hear at the entrance of a ghost, what we hear instead is a sad, lonely theme played by a single cello. This unexpectedly tender music underscores the utter tragedy of Marley’s condition. This theme appears several times in the movie during scenes when Scrooge is forced to reflect on his life, uniting him with Marley, and undergoes a dramatic transformation at Scrooge’s graveside scene, where it becomes powerful and dramatic as it is blasted out by a full orchestra. Finally, in the scene where Scrooge “awakens” from his visit from the third spirit, this theme appears in a somewhat altered form, coming full circle as it is again played by the solo cello. Now it somehow sounds hopeful, and just as the theme has changed, we realize that Scrooge, too, has changed.

The other leitmotif is heard whenever Fred or his mother Fan, Scrooges dead sister, are in the scene. It is a gently skipping theme which, while seemingly happy on the surface, still has a streak of sadness in it. We hear it in the background as Scrooge reminisces about his late sister, or muses over how much like her Fred looks. By uniting these characters it helps make Scrooge more human.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, I love this movie, and make it a point to watch the DVD several times during the month of December. It is my sincere hope that you will, too.

–Smith

07
Dec
06

Maxine Moves

Because of the inordinately large amount of space that the Maxine post takes up on the front page, I’ve decided to give her a page of her own. Besides, I figure the old gal deserves her own special page.

–Smith

06
Dec
06

Sasieni Pipes

In 1996, I published an article on Sasieni pipes in a now sadly defunct little magazine known as Pipe Friendly, and later republished it in slightly revised form in another magazine known as Pipes and Tobacco, which, I’m glad to say, is still going strong.

I’ve been a pipe smoker and collector for many years, with Sasieni pipes being my specialty. While I realize that and two bucks will get me a cup of coffee, I thought I may as well include the article on my own blog, if for no other reason than the article seems to be all over the Internet anyway.  You can read it here.

At some point in the future I intend to photograph my collection (about 100 or so pipes) and post them on another page.

This is only going to interest you if you are into pipe smoking and/or pipe collecting. If not, you’ll probably want to skip down to the very amusing post on suicide bombers.

–Smith

06
Dec
06

A flaw in their strategy

Wouldn’t you think that after a while they would get sick and tired of blowing themselves up for what really seems like a hopeless cause?  Just wondering here.

–Smith

03
Dec
06

Britney, put your clothes on!

Ok, by now you’ve probably seen the pictures, or at least heard about them. I’m talking about the ones of uber-tart Britney Spears exposing her privates to the ever rapacious cameras of the paparazzi. What I find so disturbing about this is that, according to sources who supposedly know about these things, this was no accident. Desperate to revive a flagging career, America’s Tramp intentionally gave her panty-less crotch area a good airing out in the hopes that the moment would be caught on camera. She got her wish.

Hey, it worked for Lindsay Lohan, right?

Now, call me old fashioned, but I seem to remember a day not all that long ago when a musician would attempt to revive his or her career with a new hit record. But of course, it’s not that easy for America’s Sweetheart of the Trailer Park, because you have to have talent to make a hit record.

Actually, that’s not really true, either, since she has in fact cranked out a couple of hit albums with a voice that makes Madonna sound like Joan Sutherland. In fact, not since Brooke Shields has someone managed to get so far in life with so little talent. It’s amazing what they can do in the studio nowadays. But I guess it’s just easier for the frog voiced Britney to simply flash her hoo-hoo and wait for the fall out.

Of course we mustn’t forget that Madonna herself revived her career by going the Full Monty (remember THAT book?) But then Madonna always was ahead of her time. I guess Madonna and Britney exchanged more than just spit that night at the Emmy’s. Britney had better start selling some records, or some pics of the former Mouseketeer in her birthday suit won’t be far in the future.

Now I am not a prude. Like any red blooded American male, I certainly enjoy looking at a bit of female flesh from time to time. What I really find so disturbing about this is that, quite honestly, the little tart knew exactly what she was doing, and she got exactly what she wanted. And that says far more about us than it does about her.

Where is the outrage here? It seems as though people have just shrugged their shoulders and chalked it up as another case of a celebrity behaving shamefully. Michael Richards and Mel Gibson get cocked, say some politically incorrect bad words, and their careers go down in flames. But Britney deliberately shows off her pussy in public, and somehow that’s ok.

And before you get your panties in a bunch (you are still wearing them right? or has Britney kicked off a new trend here?) I am NOT defending Gibson or Richards. (BTW, both Gibson and Richards apologized for their behavior. I have yet to hear an apology from Britney).

Frankly, I always knew that it was only a matter of time before Britney Spears took her rightful place in the Slime Pantheon alongside other white trash icons such as Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton. This episode doesn’t surprise me at all. But it bothers me that celebs like Spears are reaching lower and lower in their bids for attention, and it bothers me even more that the people of this country are giving them exactly what they want.

So what happens when this form of bad behavior becomes too commonplace (and it will) to get the reaction they’re looking for. Just how bad can they get? Will Britney and Paris one day get “caught” having sex in the back of a limousine, because that’s what it will take to get people’s attention?

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, need I remind people that teenage girls want, more than anything else, to be like Britney. In an era where teens are posting naked pictures of themselves on the Internet and engaging in other sexually dangerous behaviors, the last thing we need is someone like Britney Spears setting the worst possible example for them. Because you just know that it won’t be long before we’re reading a newspaper story about some 14 year old Britney wannabe who got sent home from school for taking her Britney obsession a little too far. What are the parents of teenage girls supposed to do? Conduct a panty inspection every morning before school?

Lest you think me an alarmist, let me remind you that this seemingly ammoral generation of teens will be running the country when we’re all ready for the nursing home. All I can think of when I read things like this is how the Roman Empire went into steep moral decline in the years before its ultimate fall. With any luck, I’ll be dead before some woman whose heroes growing up were Paris Hilton and Britney Spears is President.

–Smith




taking up a glowing cinder with the tongs and lighting with it the long cherry-wood pipe which was wont to replace his clay when he was in a disputatious rather than a meditative mood" ~ Dr. John H. Watson ************************
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