Friday Free-for-all #23

In which I answer a random question generated by a website. Here’s this week’s question Feel free to give your own answers in the comments.

What’s your favorite holiday movie?

Very appropriate that this one popped up now, since we’re almost exactly between Christmases which, face it, is what most people think of when they think “holiday movie.” Well, except for the twisted folk who think of the Halloween franchise, of course.

Groundhog Day is probably one of the better-known and more beloved non-Christmas films, But you have to think really hard to come up with others without looking. For example, which holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles about? (Hint: it’s not Christmas.)

Did you even remember that Eight Crazy Nights is a thing until I mentioned it? And while at least the first Independence Day movie took place around that holiday, it only counts if you stick strictly to America, of course, which is just jingoistic and awkward when you remember that it’s the whole planet being invaded.

Easter movies tend to be about either Jesus or Bunnies, although Monty Python’s Life of Brian absolutely is an Easter film that isn’t strictly about either. New Year’s Eve fares a little better, including the strangely fascinating Strange Days, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Released in 1995, it was set in the two days leading into the year 2000 — although it wasn’t so much about the holiday as about the existence of recordings of people’s memories as a black-market drug.

Oddly enough, 1995 was the same year that Terry Gillaim’s 12 Monkeys came out — another mid-90s science fiction film set in the very-near future, although in the case of this one, the year was 1996, which was about exactly a year after the release date of the film.

Meta.

But, for me, this question actually has two answers, and I’ve already mentioned the director of one of the films. However, I’ll start with the more obvious choice.

It’s a Wonderful Life is one of those movies I can watch over and over, and from any point I happen to stumble across a re-broadcast. In case you live under a rock, it came out in 1946, directed by Frank Capra, and it stars James Stewart as George Bailey in the story of a small-town Everyman who winds up giving up his own dreams in order to help others.

One of the most fascinating things about the film is the abrupt tone-shift as we move into the third act, more on which in a moment. Up until that point, it barrels head-long into the American Dream — and remember, the whole thing was being produced right as the U.S. defeated the Powers of Evil™ and became the predominant and benevolent World Power — never mind that whole nuking civilians in Japan thing.

George Bailey — born into white privilege in the town of Bedford Falls, around 1907. After all, his father and uncle own the local Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, so the family is well-off. Well, at least until 1928, when young George is planning to embark on a world tour which is cancelled when his father has a stroke and dies.

Oops.

George is coerced by the board into taking over the company. Meanwhile, George gives his trip money to his brother Harry (whose life he already saved once) to pay his college tuition with the agreement that Harry take over the company after he graduates so George can be free to pursue his dreams.

Needless to say, Harry reneges because of a good job offer; George marries good girl Mary, but the stock market crashes and they have to spend their honeymoon money bailing out the Building and Loan.

Eventually, George starts a housing development with nice and affordable homes while the Big Bad, Henry Potter, tries to subvert him from his mission, but George will have none of it.

And then… George’s addle-brained Uncle Billy fucks up big time, accidentally hands Potter the Building and Loan’s deposits (the modern equivalent of $110K in cash), and suddenly George lands deep in the shit.

This is where the film turns dark and George’s guardian angel Clarence turns up to present George with the proverbial Monkey’s Paw answer to his appeal: “I wish I’d never been born.”

That’s exactly what George gets, and it becomes a beautiful butterfly effect of events. He never saved his brother from drowning, which had enormous repercussions in World War II, leaving hundreds of men to die in a Kamikaze attack. George wasn’t there to stop his pharmacist boss from making a mistake, leading to a kid being poisoned and said pharmacists winding up as a homeless town pariah.

Even the women in his life suffered — his wife Mary went on to become a mousy spinster librarian, and while it’s not absolutely clear how George helped childhood friend Violet Bick, she’s pretty much a whore in the town of Potterville. And even his own sainted mother morphed into one gigantic uber-Karen bitch.

Oh — it’s not Bedford Falls anymore, either, so there’s that.

There is one really brilliant but easy to miss moment in this act, too, and that’s the instant when Clarence starts the process of saving George. See, Bailey is about to dive off of the bridge to kill himself, hoping that his life insurance will take care of all of his financial problems. But Clarence knows his subject well, and in that moment he throws himself into the water first and begins shouting out that magic phrase.

“I can’t swim. Help, help. I can’t swim. Help!”

And what has been George’s life-long pattern? Helping everyone else without thinking about himself. So he dives in and drags Clarence out, and the rest happens.

Now, I don’t care how jaded or cynical you are, but once we get to the climax of the film — when George’s original reality is restored and he races home — if you don’t cry at least once if not for at least the last fifteen minutes of the movie, then you have no fucking heart.

Shit, if the waterworks don’t go off in just the first ten seconds of that clip out of context, make an appointment with your cardiologist now.

Here’s the funny thing about It’s a Wonderful Life, though — on initial release, it bombed. Big time. Critics loved it, but audiences didn’t, and it lost half a million dollars. It probably would have just vanished, except for one incredible fuck-up.

At some point, somebody forgot to renew the copyright, and so the film fell for a time into the public domain, which meant that it could be shown freely forever. And who picked up on that? Television stations, which led to the movie being run over and over around Christmas every year and, ta-da, instant classic.

Okay, slight simplification — the film itself was free. The short story it was based on was not. Still, beginning in 1974, the movie was on the express train to beloved Christmas classic and, honestly, I think that it deserves it.

As for my other choice, which I love even more than It’s a Wonderful Life, that would be Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which is every inch a Christmas movie while not being about Christmas per se, but still being about the hopes of a dreamer pitted against society at large.

Sure, Brazil’s Sam Lowry loses his battle, sort of, but he’s kind of an anti-George Bailey: a man who starts out working for the side of evil only to be liberated by his (most likely never-requited) love for a woman he may or may not have actually met, but rather only saw one time on the way to work.

That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case, he actually wound up getting her arrested and, probably, summarily executed as a suspected terrorist. Oops.

Eventually, he winds up finding refuge in his own fantasia of a world where yes, he did actually matter as he is tortured by people he had thought to be his friends and allies.

All of this is played out against some of the most amazing film design ever, in a world that takes place during the entire 20th century at once, on a Tuesday. In fact, a lot of the aesthetic would have felt totally at home to George Bailey, especially the costumes and technology.

Here’s a really good example of the design and tech of the film:

Anyway, Gilliam’s Brazil is the best version of 1984 ever filmed, period. The movie is also infamous for some useless asshole producer at Universal trying eviscerate it, leading to Gilliam taking out ads in the trades demanding that the studio give his film back.

Luckily, Gilliam won that battle, although we still got to see the version that the hack Sid Sheinberg wanted to release on various Criterion Collections and, yes… it was absolute shite.

Anyway… it’s a nearly perfect film. Go seek it out and watch it, whether it’s Christmas or not.

PS: I’m so sorry that trailers in the 80s sucked ass…

Sunday Nibble #5

One of the nice side benefits of my current day job that wasn’t really in the description — although getting her approval was a part of the interview process — is that I’ve really connected with my boss’s wife, whom I’ll call Ms. R. That was probably inevitable, though, because she’s a stylist by profession, but also an artist, talented painter (though not actively doing it now) just generally creative, and Jewish.

I mention all of those because I think that’s why we had such a strong and immediate connection.

I share the creative bits with her and, while I’m not actually Jewish, I effectively went through middle and high school being the token goy among predominantly Jewish friends or, as I call it, lucky as hell, so that was the major cultural imprint on me in my formative years. If I were a menu item, I guess it would be an atheist curry of Catholic-Jewish cultural fusion. Spicy corned beef and kreplach served from Russell’s teapot.

One of the things Ms. R does is decorate the place per season and holiday, and by this point I’ve been through all of the major post-Labor Day holidays. Oh… I should mention that the “office” is the boss’s house, and my specific office is the living room. Since Ms. R spends most of the time when she’s not at her salon in the kitchen, dining, and living rooms, she and I interact a lot.

However, I didn’t really get involved in the whole design and layout thing until the last few days. They’re hosting a Valentine’s dinner on the Sunday after for a group of old friends of the boss — people who’ve known each other since they were kids, and now it’s grown to the originals, plus their spouses, kids and, in some cases, grandkids.

Her party set-ups can be a multi-day process that I get to watch from my desk, and this was one of them, but the Monday before the event, Ms. R started asking for my opinion on her table arrangements. At first, my thought was, “Okay, I’m gay, but I’m not that gay, so I can’t help you,” but then I realized, “No, wait, I’m also kind of obsessive, I do graphic design, and holy crap, let me at it.”

So it suddenly became all about symmetry, as in figuring out how to distribute not quite enough of each kind of plate, glass, napkin ring, etc., between two tables to accommodate 20 guests when all of the setting stuff only came in units of 6, 8, or 12.

The second she asked it, goddamn… my one kind of non-debilitating psychological quirk kicked in, and I managed to arrange the hell out of those tables and impress the hell out of Ms. R even more.

See, the kind of obsession I have has to do with regular patterns of things. Toss me something that looks symmetrical and I am damn well going to count rows and columns just to figure out how many divisions there are.

If you ever saw the stage version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, then you’ll understand, because for a lot of the time the entire set was covered in a projected grid (pictured in this article), and during the pre-show, you can be damn sure I figured out how many squares there were by counting the rows and columns and doing the math.

By the way, it was a brilliant book and a brilliant adaptation, and one that sneaks up on you. All I’ll say is that one very important detail about our narrator is never stated, but rather slowly revealed, and it’s up to us to figure it out.

I won’t leave you anything to figure out. While I can be compulsive in the pattern counting thing, I’m not obsessive, so if I can’t manage to do the count I won’t feel like my universe will end.

However… if something isn’t quite symmetrical, likewise I am going to start rearranging in my head, and that’s exactly what I started doing for my boss’s wife. And it kind of was a revelation to me because, while I’ve had experience as a graphic designer (major symmetry concerns) I have never had any kind of experience in what is essentially interior or set design, but realized today that I might actually have a natural knack for it.

And so with a few simple suggestions, I suddenly made Ms. R very happy by perfecting the layout of two separate dining tables meant for twenty people. I’m still not sure how I did it, but apparently I did.

Still… cool boss, fun wife, great job, and I get to be both intelli-gay and designo-gay. Plus I can’t wait to see what happens for St. Patrick’s Day (¡mi gente!), all the May and June stuff, Independence Day, then my repeat cycle when we hit Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Baby Jesus Day, and back to New Year’s repeat…

Of course, this year we have the bonus of the Olympics and Election, and I’m sure that those events are going to be memorialized, too. Ms. R is a big fan of Japanese art and culture, and that’s where the Olympics are this year. She’s also a political junky, watching the news every morning on the kitchen TV as she prepares for the day — luckily, our politics align — but I suspect that there will be an election night party of some sort as well.

Whether it turns out as a celebration or a funeral is still anyone’s guess, but I can be optimistic at least. Especially working in such thoughtfully designed surroundings.

Christmas Countdown, Tuesday #4

Tuesdays theme is traditional Christmas Carols performed in non-conventional ways, and for this one I bring you the masters of non-conventional, 2Cellos, Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser, a Slovenian and Croatian cellist duo who met as teens in a master music class. Like so many before them, they learned to do things that their instruments weren’t supposed to do, and they came to prominence with their music video for Thunderstruck, which sets their performance style in a setting more appropriate to the Baroque era before blowing it apart.

The only way I can describe the performance in the video in the previous paragraph, and everything else they’ve ever done, is as super-charged. Sure, I think the staged video may have involved some faking it to pre-recorded tracks, but at the same time, the emotional connection between these two guys when they play together is a constant. It’s almost like they’re having sex in the most non-sexual way. And anyone who has ever played music in a group with other people will understand that.

The connection of music is primal, immediate, in the moment, all-powerful, and it transcends all weaker forms of communication that require words or symbols. Musical communication is pure thought, pure emotion, pure NOW. If you’re not a musician and don’t believe me, go find a drum circle and give it a try, then get back to me.

And, in case you’re wondering — yes, that dynamic between these two guys and their audience is still apparent in a live show, even if they have upgraded to electric cellos.

Note that it seems to be a rule that they play most of their shows with half the horse-hairs on their bows broken from the first moments.

See the previous post, or dive right into Christmas and one of my favorite bands.

Christmas Countdown, Sunday #3

Day 17

Sunday’s theme is “It’s Not Just Christmas,” and today’s video is a quick primer on the holiday of Kwanzaa. It begins on the day after Christmas, December 26th. In this video, the Nguzo Saba, or Seven Principals, are explained in a very tuneful way by Clinton Sockwell II, to the tune of Herbie Hancock’s Rubber Soul. I encourage you to listen and learn if you have no idea what Kwanzaa is all about, and listen and remember if you should know. Whichever group you’re in, this is an incredibly uplifting and encouraging message.

Check out the previous post, see the next, or start at the beginning.

Christmas Countdown, Saturday #3

Day 16

We’re back to the theme of Famous Duets, and this is another odd couple, although probably not as odd as Bowie and Crosby other than it features two singers with very different styles — and one of them was even parodied in the SNL but from last Thursday.

I’m referring to Michael Bublé and Rod Stewart, who recorded a little ditty called Winter Wonderland for Bublé’s NBC holiday special in 2012, “Home for the Holidays.” It’s one of those generic Christmas carols that has somehow become more associated with shopping than anything else.

The song itself was written in 1934 and, while not intended as a Christmas song, ultimately became one. The lyricist, Richard B. Smith, wrote the words while being treated for tuberculosis in, of all places, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Yeah, nod to fans of the U.S. version of The Office, but to me it’s the city that my mother grew up two suburbs down from, via Wilkes-Barre to Kingston.) Anyway, he was inspired to write it after seeing a town’s central park covered in snow, so it was quite literal.

Also notable here: The song was written as a duet for a couple — presumably, 1934 just assumed a man and a woman. In this version, the lyrics implying this remain unchanged and the duo plays it straight, so to speak.

See the previous post, check out the next, or start from the beginning.

Countdown to Christmas

This originally began as an intended series of Facebook posts starting the day after Thanksgiving, but I forgot one thing. Facebook hates YouTube, so posting a video from there tends to get buried by their algorithm. But… my blog posts don’t, so I’m taking the indirect route back to Facebook, and all my readers get to share in the fun. In this post, I’ll re-cap the first five days, and then we’ll be up to date.

Day 1

As promised, now begins the countdown to Christmas with a series of holiday themed videos. Friday’s theme is “All I Want for Christmas,” aka “Mariah Carey’s Retirement Plan.” I’ll be sharing different takes on her instant Christmas classic. Hey, if you’re going to write a song to cash in on the holiday, at least make it a good one, okay?

This video became an instant favorite of mine when I first stumbled across it. It combines the song with some amazing choreography and a little gender-bending.Choreographed by and Starring Alex Karigan and Zac Hammer, members of Amy Marshall Dance Company. Beyond that and the name they use, The Yahs Initiative, I don’t know much more about the performers or video, other than that most of their videos are Christmas themed, and they haven’t posted anything in three years. Enjoy!

Day 2

Saturday’s Countdown to Christmas theme is famous duets, and I’m kicking it off with a modern classic that has become controversial recently because, when you really listen to the lyrics, it does come off as very date-rapey. Even the lyrics hint at this, with the male vocalist identified as “Wolf,” and the female vocalist identified as “Mouse.”

In this rendition, Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt flip the roles as she plays wolf to his mouse. Do you think this reinforces or negates the perception of the song as being about attempted date rape?

Day 3

Sunday’s theme for Countdown to Christmas is going to be “It’s Not Just Christmas,” a reminder that there are other holidays this time of year. Here’s a song by Bob Grow celebrating that most famous of made-up TV alternative holidays.

Day 4

On Mondays, the theme is going to be Spanish Christmas carols; los lunes tendremos los villancicos navideños españoles. Today, we’ll start with a simple one that most English speakers know and which gets played a lot this year — José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.” One interesting thing to note is that this simple title reminds us how Spanish construction and word choice frequently follows British, rather than American, usage. “Feliz navidad” literally means “Happy Christmas,” which is what they say in the UK. To be closer to the American “Merry Christmas,” the phrase would probably be “Navidad alegre,” although I don’t think anyone ever says that.

Day 5

For Tuesdays, I’ll be bringing you more tranditional Christmas carols not necessarily performed in traditional ways. Our first goes back to 1988 and the holiday special episode of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” While that show always pretended to be for kids, it really was aimed squarely at adults but flew under the radar of most folk who weren’t in the know, and there was a certain gay sensibility about it. In that context, then, this appearance by Grace Jones was groundbreaking. She was a gender-bending performer and not necessarily family friendly, but there she was, performing the number absolutely straight. Not to mention that her costume and the musical arrangement are both spectacular.

Check out the next post in the series!