Things That Have Made Me Happy in 2015

Among the podcasts my husband and I enjoy listening to when we make trips to Atlanta and elsewhere is NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” a roundtable discussion about what’s hot in books, film, TV, and music. Every episode ends with a segment called “What’s Making Us Happy This Week.” To end the year 2015 on a positive note, I’ve decided to steal a page from their proverbial book and highlight some things that have made me especially happy this year, in no particular order.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I intend to devote an entire post to this film, once the tidal wave of media coverage surrounding it starts to subside. For now, I’ll just say I think it’s awesome and I love it.

Uprooted

Naomi Novik’s stand-alone fantasy novel, a portal to the landscape of fairytale Poland, took me to my happy place this year with some of the most vivid descriptions of magical workings I’ve read in the genre. The heroine, coltish and clumsy Agniezska, uses what she has, a unique brand of magic no one else understands and even she isn’t quite sure about, to rescue those closest to her and, in the end, save her world. This was a good year for heroines who get the job done.

The Muppets

As a long-time fan of The Muppet Show, I found this new show took some getting used to. A friend of mine complained that the pilot was too mean-spirited, and I could see all too clearly where he was coming from. But new shows often take time to find their footing, and by the time I saw the Christmas episode — which was anything but mean-spirited — the show had become one of my sources of happiness. Plus, Uncle Deadly, the miniature dragon with the Vincent Price swagger who made me chuckle every time he turned up on the classic series, features prominently in this one.

Fool’s War

Fantasy is always my genre of choice both as a reader and as a writer, but I do relish falling in love with a good science fiction novel. This summer I finally got around to reading Sarah Zettel’s book, and I wish I’d read it sooner, just so I could have had it in my life longer. I enjoy it for its diverse cast (in gender, race, and ethnicity), its intriguing theme (the nature of artificial intelligence), and its central heroine, Evelyn Dobbs, who confronts a painful moral dilemma with aplomb and integrity. Plus, its style is solidly accessible even to a science/technology dunderhead like me.

Inside Out

Since I’ve discussed this one in a previous blog, I’ll limit myself to a few words. “Congratulations, San Francisco, you’ve ruined pizza!” “I am positive you could get lost in there.” “Triple Dent Gum.” “Take her to the moon for me, okay?”

The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne

Django Wexler’s The Shadow Campaigns series was also the subject of an earlier blog, so again I’ll keep it brief. Sometimes I hesitate to recommend books, even ones I adore; I always think, “Well, I loved it, but he/she might not,” and catch myself wishing to protect those beloved books from possible negative opinions. But the first two volumes of this series I would recommend without hesitation to any fan of fantasy, especially lovers of heroines like myself.

Crimson Peak

Critics gave Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror costume drama a lukewarm reception, so my expectations were hardly in the stratosphere. Yet for all its flaws, this movie may have been designed with me in mind. An aspiring writer as its heroine. A haunted mansion beyond Charlotte Bronte’s most feverish dreams. An atmospheric score and gorgeous costumes. I let myself be seduced, and I can’t say I feel very guilty.

DragonCon 2015

This was my first DragonCon as a published novelist, my first time as a dealer. Gilded Dragonfly Books had a booth in the Exhibit Hall, and my husband and I both did our share of “manning the table.”  We took twenty copies of Atterwald to the Con, and by its end we had sold every one of them. Definitely a highlight of my year.

Honorable Mention Name Drop:

Supergirl. Marvel’s Agent Carter. Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight. Kate Forsyth’s The Witches of Eileanan. Kristen Britain’s First Rider’s Call. Jennifer Fallon’s Treason Keep. PBS’s remake of Poldark. Season 2 of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Wild Seed. Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens. Elizabeth Bear’s Steles of the Sky. Far From the Madding Crowd (2015 movie). Mad Max: Fury Road. Orange is the New Black. The final season of Continuum.

That’s a lot of happiness.

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Christmas Music

My Christmas celebration needs one more component to make it complete: an appropriate selection of tunes that range from traditional carols to swingin’ standards to skewerings and parodies of the old familiar holiday-music chestnuts. Here I share a few of the songs I look forward to hearing on my iPod playlist each time December rolls around.

A few years back, my husband and I discovered the a capella group Straight No Chaser, via their first viral video and holiday CD. These guys have amazing versatility, their performances ranging from the funny to the poignant. When Matt and I saw them in concert at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre back in November, several audience members shouted out this title and were disappointed when the guys failed to take the hint and perform it.  So here it is!

I mentioned swingin’ standards a moment ago, and here’s my favorite of that type. Buster Poindexter and the Muppets have both done solid covers of it, but Satchmo’s rendition still has first place in my heart.

Last year, Idina Menzel, the Broadway performer best known for her Tony-winning turn as Elphaba in Wicked and her voice-work as Elsa in Frozen, released a Christmas CD. Not all the songs are golden, but I find this one heartbreakingly beautiful. (Warning: I wanted, when possible, to share live performances. The language in this one is slightly blue at the very beginning.)

Speaking of heartbreak, I can never hear this song from Sarah McLachlan without getting misty-eyed.

The Christmas CD of the Tartan Terrors, a bagpipe group Matt and I first heard at the Georgia Renaissance Festival, introduced me to this song, a musical telling of the famous Christmas Truce in 1914.

Finally, for a good laugh, this one never fails.

To one and all, a joyous holiday season.

 

Christmas television: the ones you know

Warning: in this particular holiday blog post, you won’t find much original or surprising. In fact, I almost decided not to write it, because when I thought about my favorite holiday television specials, the only ones that came to mind were the famous ones that have been written about before. Yet here is this post anyway, because the purpose of my blog isn’t to be original or surprising. It’s to pay tribute to the things I love, even when they’re the same things everyone else loves.

My favorite TV Christmas specials will always be the ones I grew up watching, the furniture of my childhood playroom. Since I spent my fourth through seventh grade years entranced by Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) will always have a special place in my heart. In fact, all I have to do is hear the first four chords of “Christmastime Is Here” from Vince Guairaldi’s piano to feel warm all over. The music may be the special’s foremost allure for me, but I’m drawn to Charlie Brown as I would be to any good-hearted underdog who chooses a scraggly green Christmas tree because “I think it needs me,” and Linus, my favorite of the gang, plays a central role in the story, stepping into the spotlight to explain what Christmas is all about. Other highlights for me include five-cent psychiatrist Lucy quizzing Charlie Brown about his fears, finally reaching pantophobia, “the fear of everything” (“That’s it!”), and Schroeder plunking out a toy-piano appropriate rendition of “Jingle Bells” for Lucy — on what looks like his middle finger! How’d they get away with that?

1966’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the work of Chuck Jones, one of my heroes, also responsible for a string of the best seven-minute animated theatrical shorts ever made (One Froggy Evening, Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, What’s Opera, Doc?, and the “hunter trilogy,” three shorts which feature Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck each trying to convince hapless Elmer Fudd to shoot the other). It features narration by Boris Karloff, another of my heroes, whose deep, soft, slightly sinister British baritone voice could make the Tax Code sound interesting. So there’s little chance of my not loving this classic with my whole heart. Thurl Ravenscroft’s delightful singing of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is the gravy on the roast beast. People keep telling me this already-perfect special was remade as a live-action feature film a few years back, but you know what? I refuse to believe them.

Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass are, as we all know, the kings of the holiday TV special, and indeed I could devote an entire blog post just to their work. (Something to keep in mind for next December.) I’m quite fond of their flagship special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but my softest spot is for 1970’s Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, for a number of reasons. First, in a number of the Rankin-Bass specials, Santa is more than a bit of a jerk (as in Rudolph, when he adds his voice to poor Rudolph’s mockers, and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, when he decides to bypass an entire town because one kid published a letter calling him a “fraudulent myth”). But here he’s closest to the Edmund Gwenn Santa, even going by Kris Kringle for most of the show. I also like the portrayal of Jessica, the future Mrs. Santa Claus, as an active heroine. Plus, here we get fine voice-work from Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney, and especially Keenan Wynn as the Winter Warlock (apologies, just “Winter”), whose “melting” when Kris gives him a toy choo-choo is my favorite scene, and the splendid Paul Frees, who gives voice to the hilariously over-the-top villain Burgermeister Meisterburger (“I hate toys, and toys hate me! Either they are going or I am going, and I am definitely not going!”).

These are my top three, but I have a few “second-tier favorites.” John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together wins my love thanks to the rendition of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” in which Fozzie Bear keeps forgetting his part and Miss Piggy hams up hers, as if she could do otherwise (“ba-dum-bum-bum”), and the Piggy-led round of the English madrigal “Christmas Is Coming.” Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is a sweet “Gift of the Magi”-type tale of a poor otter mother and son, and a die-hard Muppet fan like myself can spot the core performers in the cast; veteran Jerry Nelson, who also voiced Robin the Frog and Gobo Fraggle, is very likable as Emmet (though I’m a bit less thrilled with Marilyn Sokol as his mother), and the Paul Williams songs are catchy. The Little Drummer Boy, another Rankin-Bass special, has a couple of good songs and strong voice-work from Jose Ferrer, proving again that villains have more fun, but it stands out for having one of the most strikingly flawed youthful protagonists I’ve seen in any holiday special.

Christmas-themed episodes of TV series aren’t in quite the same category as holiday specials, but I can’t talk about my Christmas TV experience without mentioning “The Night of the Meek,” an episode of the classic series The Twilight Zone, in which Art Carney plays a destitute drunk who loses his job as a department-store Santa Claus when he says the wrong thing to a bratty child, and then is given a magical opportunity to become Santa Claus. In less than thirty minutes, the episode hits all the notes of a great Christmas tale. It’s a redemption story, not just of one man but of everyone around him. Like Miracle on 34th Street, it stresses the importance of faith, as the magic bag with which Carney becomes Santa can only work if people believe in it and in him. And of course we get the joy of giving, in spades. Carney is excellent as he transforms from languid, despairing lost soul into energetic Kris Kringle, and John Fiedler, best known as the voice of Piglet in Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons (and “that guy” in a lot of things), is effectively villainous as Carney’s heartless department-store boss.

[Hi, this is Matt, Nan’s husband.  One more Christmas-themed episode that we enjoy every year is “Comfort and Joy” from Justice League.  Granted, in the scheme of the DCAU, it doesn’t advance any plots.  But it does have Hawkgirl and Green Lantern (John Stewart) having a snowball fight, Flash trying to find the hottest Christmas toy for a group of underprivileged children, and J’onn J’onzz (a.k.a. The Martian Manhunter) learning about the meaning of Christmas… and discovering his addiction to Oreos!  Every year, it melts our hearts…]

For those in search of some less orthodox holiday entertainment, check out this post from Tor.com’s blog site.

Christmas Cinema: Which “Carol”?

Just why is Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol so enduringly popular, perhaps the most frequently adapted and parodied literary work of all time? We pop-culture watchers must have a theory or two. I believe most of us, even the most hardened, have a soft spot for a good redemption story, a journey out of a solitary darkness into a light that promises companionship and love. Such a story speaks to the optimist in us, the hope not so much that things can get better, but that we can get better. Yet what makes this particular redemption story work is the complexity of Ebenezer Scrooge, the central character. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Dickens had an instinctive knowledge of the workings of human psychology. As his story unfolds, we can see clearly why Scrooge is as he is (no caricature, he, whatever some weak cinematic depictions of the character might lead us to think) and also how he might be made better. Dickens’ narrator assures us that Scrooge does not backslide into his former miserly ways, and thanks to the skillful step-by-step building of the character’s redemption, we believe it.

To those looking for the best adaptation, I have to say: First, read the book. Start there, and judge the adaptations by its light. It’s a very fine read, and it won’t take much time. This podcast, featuring renowned author Neil Gaiman’s performance of the novella, is well worth a listen.

None of the film and television adaptations have managed to get the story exactly right, but some have come quite close, and of course I have my favorites. The 1951 version, starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge, is the one favored by purists, and not without reason. Its strongest selling point is Sim’s performance. Not only does he look like the vision of Scrooge we all have in our heads, with his hair shaped to resemble the illustrations in the novella’s original edition, and his facial expression sharp, sarcastic, perpetually disgruntled, but he delivers all his lines with a realism that makes Scrooge seem like someone we might have met, had we lived in nineteenth-century London. He brings the character full circle, from his first appearance (“Christmas, sir, is a humbug”) to his last (“I haven’t taken leave of my senses, Bob, I’ve come to them”) and never misses a beat. Other positives in this adaptation include art direction that puts the viewer right there in the shadows of Dickens’ great city, and an extended Christmas Past sequence that fleshes out Scrooge’s first steps on the road to avarice and isolation, going beyond even the novella. Dickens tells us Scrooge’s sister died in childbirth and young Ebenezer never quite got over the loss. In this film, we see this happen. We also see the beginning of Scrooge’s partnership with Jacob Marley, and his forsaking of his benevolent boss Fezziwig in favor of a much darker mentor (shades of Anakin Skywalker).

Yet this last strength could also be a weakness, because with so much time spent on Christmas Past, the other sections feel rushed through. When I watch it I wonder if the studio might have insisted the film not run more than an hour and a half, and I wish it might be at least ten minutes longer, so that the other sequences, particularly Christmas Present, might have been developed in as much detail as the splendid Christmas Past.

An adaptation of A Christmas Carol is only as good as its Scrooge, and in the 1984 TV-movie, George C. Scott makes a very good one. Like Sim, Scott eschews caricature, giving us a portrait of a convincing human being. His Scrooge has a dry sense of humor and an energy even in his early scenes; we can see so much potential in him, which makes us eager to see him redeemed. If he falls a little short of Sim’s portrayal, it’s not really his fault, for the big, bluff American Scott lacks Sim’s English-ness. He doesn’t even attempt the accent. Yet oddly enough, unlike Kevin Costner in the best-forgotten Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Scott never feels out of place among his British co-stars.

Where this version surpasses the 1951 film, in my opinion, is the supporting cast. When I think of the earlier film, I can see Scrooge clearly in my mind’s eye, yet nobody else (even though Patrick Macnee, John Steed in British TV’s 1960s spy drama The Avengers, is in it). Here, however, the supporting actors leave a strong impression. Roger Rees is charmingly jovial as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Frank Finlay makes a scary Marley’s Ghost; his trick with his headkerchief, in particular, will give viewers the creeps. David Warner, so often cast in villainous roles, plays Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit as a husband and father who’s doing his best, with a lot more dignity than screen Cratchits usually have; plus, he and Susannah York’s Mrs. Cratchit are believably in love. (I love York’s scathing denunciation of Scrooge.) And Edward Woodward, as the Ghost of Christmas Present, leaves no scenery unchewed; this jolly Father Christmas lets Scrooge have it, big time. (In a sequence most adaptations leave out, Woodward’s Christmas Present displays the skeletal children Ignorance and Want, declaring to Scrooge, “They are your children.”) But alas, the cast does have one glaring weakness: Anthony Walter’s lisping pseudo-adorable Tiny Tim, probably the hardest character for any adaptation to get right. Try to ignore him, if you can.

Now I come to my guilty pleasure, the one I know to be full of glaring weaknesses yet enjoy nonetheless: the 1971 musical, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge. Here we have a score full of cheesy songs; “Thank You Very Much” may be an engaging earworm, but overall, 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol actually delivers better songs (the work of frequent Muppet collaborator Paul Williams, the man who gave us “The Rainbow Connection”). We also have the most irritatingly unbelievable Tiny Tim of all, and when he gets his own song, we can be thankful for the fast-forward button. Finney is game as Scrooge, but since he’s a young actor aged to play “present” Scrooge, he veers a little too close to caricature, especially compared to Sim and Scott.

So why do I enjoy it? It can be hard to pinpoint, with a guilty pleasure. But there are some good performances here, particularly Edith Evans as the oh-so-dignified Ghost of Christmas Past, Kenneth More as Christmas Present (not as butt-kicking awesome as Woodward, but I still like him), and my favorite Marley’s Ghost of all, Alec Guinness. There are genuinely scary moments; I remember being quite terror-stricken as a child with the sequence that shows Scrooge in hell. Finney, though a little over-the-top in his age makeup, is quite good in the Christmas Past sequence, when he gets to act his real age; here, young Scrooge is handsome and charming, adding to the tragedy of his fall. The portrayal of his lost love goes straight to the sentimental fool in me, making me tear up even though I know I shouldn’t. Also, darn it, “Thank You Very Much” is an engaging earworm.

Finally there’s the missed opportunity, the 1938 MGM adaptation, a movie that could have been, and should have been, much better than it is. The venerable Lionel Barrymore, who had played the hearty, good-natured Dan Peggotty in the studio’s adaptation of David Copperfield three years earlier, was supposed to play Scrooge, yet he was felled by the stroke that put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his career, so B-list actor Reginald Owen had to step in. Owen does what he can, but the subtlety that Barrymore might have brought to the role — he might have gone down as the definitive Scrooge — is absent here. What the film does have going for it is that wonderful 1938 big-studio ambiance. Not everyone likes that kind of thing, but I do. Plus, I like it that Terry Killiam’s Tiny Tim is first seen watching a bunch of his friends skate down an icy stretch of road and praising an adult (Scrooge’s nephew) for “breaking the record,” something a real little boy might do.

For those who like their adaptations a bit less literal, I should mention a favorite of my husband’s, 1988’s Scrooged, starring Bill Murray as a too-cynical TV executive trying to stage a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol, who of course finds himself living the story. I tend to prefer the closer-to-the-book versions, but I have to say that Carol Kane, as Christmas Present, kicks almost as much butt as Edward Woodward.

 

Christmas Cinema: Believing in a “Miracle”

As much as I enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life, if I could have only one Christmas movie to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be the other classic-era perennial, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. The main reason is that Life is only tangentially a Christmas movie, with only the last extended sequence taking place at Christmas and very little said about the holiday itself. Miracle, however, covers the time span between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day, and the holiday is the very heart of the movie.

This movie doesn’t get quite as much hate from contemporary audiences as Life does, probably because it has an acerbic sharpness that the Capra film lacks. Though not edgy by any means, it mines humor from irony in a way that can feel surprisingly contemporary: department store magnate R.H. Macy, an actual character in the film, embraces the concept of his Santa Claus sending customers to other stores if they can’t find what they want at Macy’s, because being seen as “the friendly store, the helpful store, the store with a heart” will bring in more profits than ever before; the beleaguered Judge Henry Harper (Gene Lockhart) — unlucky enough to preside at Kris Kringle’s sanity hearing — is lectured by his adviser (William Frawley) on the political suicide he would commit if he rules Santa Claus doesn’t exist; the day is saved, not by one of the leads performing a brave or selfless deed, but by a harried postal employee (Jack Albertson) trying to reduce his workload. (The 1990s remake, which falls curiously flat even with the best of intentions, is actually more sentimental on this point.)

Yet such moments of enlightened self-interest are juxtaposed against some of the most triumphantly sentimental scenes in movie history, nearly all of them involving the superb Edmund Gwenn, who, though he’s central to the action and in at least 95% of the scenes, had to settle for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role of Kris Kringle, the man who just might be Santa Claus. Gwenn plays Kris with perfect sincerity and just the right dash of whimsical humor. We see Kris gladden the heart of a Dutch immigrant girl by speaking and singing to her in her own language; we see him teach practical little Natalie Wood, victim of an upbringing in which all fantasy is anathema, how to pretend to be a monkey; we see him listen as Wood expresses her longing for a house with a back yard and a swing; we see him offer encouragement to a young man who loves impersonating Santa Claus because he loves watching children get “that Christmas look”; and we see him learn the hard way why a man with a long, thick white beard shouldn’t try bubble gum. (We don’t actually see this disastrous result, but the look on Wood’s face is brilliant.) Gwenn’s wise and gentle Kris is the Santa I believed in as a child, the one that even now I wish were real. Yet he doesn’t shy away from kicking butt when the need arises, as the movie’s only completely unsympathetic character learns to his sorrow.

The movie’s warmth springs not only from Kris but from his effect on those around him, especially Wood but also her mother, Maureen O’Hara (rest in peace, magnificent Queen of Ireland), whose eventual profession of belief in Kris, a single sentence in a letter, jerks honest tears, and even R. H. Macy himself, who declares on the witness stand that he believes his Santa Claus is real, not because it’s in his own interest (though that is his first thought) but because he remembers the children’s faces as they watched Kris ride past in his sleigh in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Kris brings out the best in us, even accidentally, as with the harried postal worker. And what better at Christmas than a funny, well-written story that touches our better natures?

As with It’s a Wonderful Life, much of the brilliance of this film springs from its supporting cast. The male juvenile-lead, Everyman John Payne, is the movie’s least interesting character, and while he’s easy to like, it’s other characters/performances that we remember: Thelma Ritter, dispenser of sharp and cynical wisdom in movies like All About Eve and Rear Window, here making her debut in the bit part of a mother perfectly willing to tear Santa a new one when she thinks he’s made her little boy a promise he (she) can’t keep; Lockhart as the judge who’s sympathetic despite his impossible position, and Frawley (with his wonderful speaking voice) as his right hand; Philip Tonge as O’Hara’s colleague at Macy’s, the foppish Mr. Shellhammer; Alvin Greenman as Alfred, the young Brooklyn janitor-who-would-be-Santa-Claus; and Porter Hall as mean-spirited pseudo-psychiatrist Mr. Sawyer, the man unwise enough to get on Kris’s bad side. Here’s a name you probably won’t recognize: Lela Bliss, who plays Mr. Shellhammer’s wife. Her less than two minutes of screen time are a highlight of the movie.

Here are a few more pro-Christmas movies from the classic era, well worth a watch if you’re seeking a departure from the cynicism overload in so much of our current pop culture:

The Shop Around the Corner (1940): James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, store employees, feud face to face and fall in love through the mail; though they’re delightful, my favorite role and performance is that of Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself) as their boss, who at Christmastime rediscovers joy after his heart has been broken.

Remember the Night (1940): accused shoplifter Barbara Stanwyck discovers she has more of a heart than she thought when she’s forced to spend Christmas with D.A. Fred MacMurray and his family. This one gets the romance right. (Classic-era movies, in general, were so much better at this.)

O. Henry’s Full House (1952): Farley Granger and Jeanne Crain star in the movie’s final segment, an adaptation of the Christmas classic “The Gift of the Magi.” But that’s not the only reason to watch. We also get Charles Laughton as the cultured bum who will do anything to get arrested in “The Cop and the Anthem”; Dale Robertson as a detective with a past, trying to pin a murder on his old frenemy Richard Widmark in “The Clarion Call”; and my favorite, Gregory Ratoff as a starving artist whose gesture saves the ailing, despairing Anne Baxter’s life in “The Last Leaf.” Only “The Ransom of Red Chief” falls flat, despite Fred Allen’s and Oscar Levant’s best efforts.

We’re No Angels (1955): Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov (nearly always worth watching), and Aldo Ray play a trio of escaped convicts who end up helping a family they originally intended to rob. If the early part of the movie feels a little slow, just wait till villain Basil Rathbone shows up. Oh, and please ignore the remake.

 

 

Christmas Cinema: Defending my “Life”

Apparently Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday perennial It’s a Wonderful Life now falls into the same category as the infamous 1997 Titanic — that is, a once widely-loved movie it has become quite fashionable to hate. Internet movie-discussion boards offer abundant opportunities for haters to express their loathing. Some of the complaints against Capra’s film hold water, others not so much. Perhaps over-familiarity has bred contempt; some folks have seen it just that one time too often. Also, tolerance for sentiment in cinema is (unfortunately) at an all-time low, with only animated features able to jerk tears and still win critical regard. But I suppose it is indeed possible to see the movie as a tragedy of a man whose adventurous spirit is crushed by the suburban middle-class existence in which he is trapped. And maybe it would be more fun to live in Pottersville, with its active jazz-inflected night life, than in sedate roll-up-the-sidewalks-after-dark Bedford Falls. And maybe the contrast between warm, sensual wife and mother Mary in Bedford Falls and sexless, neurotic librarian Mary in Pottersville is rather sexist. Also, Saturday Night Live’s “alternate ending” in which George Bailey and his legion of friends band together to beat up the evil Mr. Potter is not only funny but also quite satisfying.

Yet I love the film. I grew up watching it, and have deliberately refrained from watching it for the last several years, but still I love the film. I don’t expect this blog post or anything else to change the haters’ minds. That’s not what I’m after. My point is that it is possible for two or more people to see/hear/read the same piece of fiction and come away from it with completely different ideas. There’s no real “right” or “wrong” here, but instead the diverse meanings that creators and consumers create together.

My own take on George Bailey is the old-fashioned one: I find him an admirable hero, a man who, despite a multitude of disappointments, cares about the people around him. When he has the chance to make his dreams of travel come true by entering Mr. Potter’s employ, he chooses integrity over expedience and self-gratification; for me, this scene, even more than the iconic extended nightmare of “Pottersville,” is the movie’s and the character’s defining moment. George wants success, but not at the expense of his own honor and the welfare of those who depend on him. This makes him a hero I can root for, and James Stewart brings him to life with intelligence, vigor, and the humor that helps keep the film’s sentiment from lapsing into sentimentality.

Mary, George’s loyal and supportive wife and mother of his children (played by that un-ironic domestic goddess Donna Reed) raises a question: can a woman so thoroughly traditional still be a feminist heroine? The depiction of the alternate Mary in Pottersville may indeed be sexist, a way of saying, “Here’s what happens when a woman is denied her natural destiny of marriage and motherhood.” Yet what most people overlook when thinking about Mary is that she’s actually the one who saves the day. While George is learning his life has value even if he ends up in jail, Mary is busy doing what’s needed to keep him out of jail. The instant she sees he is in trouble, she’s on the phone with Uncle Billy to set her plan in motion. And that plan works, because she understands the support system George has built up over the years, and has faith in it when he does not. Not a passive hand-wringer waiting for others to solve the problem, she steps up and gets the job done. In that respect, yes, Mary is a feminist heroine, showing us that a woman need not make non-traditional choices in order to be capable and brave.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the movie is its remarkable supporting cast, a hallmark of classic-era cinema. That guy giving the tragi-comic performance as the disastrously flawed Uncle Billy? He’s Thomas Mitchell, a ubiquitous character actor who has never gotten the credit he deserves for his massive contribution to classic cinema; film buffs may remember him in Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and High Noon. The venerable Lionel Barrymore oozes malevolence as Mr. Potter; this was the first role I saw him play, and the first time I saw him as a sympathetic character (Disko Troop in 1937’s Captains Courageous), once I recovered from the shock, I realized the magnitude of his talent. Then there’s Henry Travers, bringing just the right blend of humor, wisdom, and whimsy to the role of Clarence the guardian angel. Great actors make strong impressions in small roles. As a fan of classic cinema, I can’t help smiling every time I see Ward Bond, here playing Bert the cop.

Finally, I guess it’s the optimist in me, but I believe that after the movie has faded to black, George does get his chance to travel, with Mary at his side and the warm-hearted Ma Bailey looking after the kids. After all, at the film’s close, George has lots of money, far more than he needs to pay his debt, right? We’re not told what he’ll do with it all, so if I want to imagine he uses it to sail around the world, I can. In my version, the people he has helped finally give him his dream.

(Next in Christmas Cinema: Believing in a “Miracle.” Yes, I love that one, too.)

 

Five Things I Love About… ARTC’s Christmas Shows

When it comes to the holidays, I have far more in common with Jack Skellington than with the Grinch. I love Christmas, even down to its corniest, cheesiest aspects. I love the light and color, as my play and short story “Christmas Rose” bear witness. I love the music, though I admit that “Jingle Bells” tries my patience a little and I may be picky about which versions of particular songs I will listen to. I love the TV specials, and will write about my favorites soon. I even love the occasional visits to the mall. But one of the things I love most, and look forward to year in and year out, is performing in the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company’s annual Christmas show. This year’s show will mark the eighth in which I have participated since I joined the company. We will perform in Stockbridge, GA on Saturday, December 12 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, December 13 at 2:30 p.m.

Five things I love about ARTC’s Christmas shows:

They’re pro-Christmas. With our pop culture’s often bitter seasoning of cynicism and irony, pro-Christmas entertainment (at least recently or currently made) can be hard to find. Unapologetically Christmas-hostile movies like Krampus and Gremlins at least have the virtue of being up-front about what they’re offering their target audience, but most recent attempts to make a holiday-positive movie have resulted in bland misfires like Four Christmases, Christmas with the Kranks, and the live-action How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Today’s Hollywood has trouble conjuring that combination of intelligence, sincerity, and sentiment needed to make a high-quality pro-Christmas movie or show. Yet this is the very combination ARTC’s shows have in spades.

They have variety. The shows change just a little year to year, as ARTC’s leaders choose scripts best suited to the venue, time, and talent available. Yet every year the chosen scripts offer a delightful mix of flavors and moods. This year the scripts range from riotously funny parody (Sketch MacQuinor’s “Blue Hannukchristmas Carol,” in which a young man is visited by the Spirits of Hannukkah What-Happened, As-It-Is, and What-Could-Be — only they’ve come to the wrong apartment) to gentle romance (Thomas E. Fuller’s “Are You Lonely Tonight?” which features a fortunate meeting of two singles at a company Christmas party, and “Cut-Out Christmas,” in which an impoverished husband and wife find a way to give each other Christmas even though they can’t afford presents). The only thing an audience won’t find: mean-spiritedness.

They feature stunning performances. I have my favorites among the mainstays, performers who have put a solid stamp on a particular role even though they may not be able to play it every year. One that springs immediately to mind is Ron N. Butler’s portrayal of “Crazy Richard,” whose devotion to all things British moves him to enlist as a soldier in World War I three years before the US entered it, landing him on the Western Front the miraculous night of the Christmas Truce in Fuller’s “O Tannenbaum.” Another that always makes me smile is Daniel Kiernan’s performance as Irving, a cantankerous Wise Man (with a Brooklyn accent) who gets “mightily miffed” when the other Wise Men question the appropriateness of his gift for the Christ Child in Brad Strickland’s “Legend of the Poinsettia.” Nonetheless, here’s the bottom line: we are all awesome in our roles.

The stories offer a variety of perspectives. So much Christmas-oriented entertainment, from songs to TV specials, centers on families and children. Certainly many of ARTC’s Christmas scripts feature charming depictions of children’s holiday doings, among them “The Ultimate Christmas Play,” “Tree Comes to Atlanta,” “Mr. Currier, Mr. Ives, and All That Snow,” “Santa Claus Blues,” and my personal favorite, “Davy Crockett and Me,” in which two brothers remember the Christmas when all they really wanted were official Davy Crockett coonskin caps. Yet these stories are counterbalanced with portrayals of grown folk celebrating the holidays, no kids involved, such as “Are You Lonely Tonight?”, “Cut-Out Christmas,” “O Tannenbaum,” “Blue Hannukchristmas Carol,” and “U.S.O. Christmas,” which tells of two soldiers during World War II, one black, one white, both from Columbus, GA, who meet at a U.S.O. party in Atlanta and forge an unexpected bond. Our scripts present all perspectives, and all relationships, as valuable. As the introduction proclaims, “Everyone’s family at Christmas.”

The shows give me a chance to connect with a vital figure in ARTC’s history. I never had the privilege of meeting Thomas E. Fuller, ARTC’s head writer, face to face. He’d passed away from a heart attack not long before I entered the company in 2004. Yet I gain a glimpse of him — his insights, his empathy — when I read and perform his words. An Atlanta Christmas, the ARTC Christmas show in its original form, is his work. Over time, other writers like myself, Ron N. Butler, Daniel Taylor, Brad and Jonathan Strickland, Cyd Hoskinson, Paige Steadman Ross, and Sketch MacQuinor have made contributions, adding to that welcome variety of perspectives. Yet Fuller’s generous and warm-hearted spirit prevails, evidence of a fine writer’s immortality. I regret never having met him during his lifetime, but he still casts a blessing on me, all of us actors, and anyone who hears our shows.

Profile: Georgiana Fields

Today I’d like you to hear from Georgiana Fields, a fellow Gilded Dragonfly Books author whose Crimson Dreams combines vampires, time travel, and an active and resourceful heroine. Here, in her own words, is a little bit about Ms. Fields:

I grew up on the coast of North Carolina. As a child I would listen to the elders in the family tell and retell ghost stories and local legends.  I think that’s what began my love of the paranormal. In 1970, I walked into the wrong movie theater. I was to meet friends to watch 101 Dalmatians, but instead, I watched Chariots of the Gods. I was 8. That movie started me thinking “what if.”

I don’t know what led me to become a writer. I’ve always loved to write stories. I had so many spiral notebooks filled with short stories that I would jot down. One of those stories turned in to my first published work. A Captain’s Tale, that appeared in Haunting Tales of Spirit Lake. That one was originally written when I was in high school, so of course I updated it and made some changes. My short story Yuletide Magic, which appeared in A Stone Mountain Christmas, is a spinoff of my Enchanted Series that features Elves, dragons, goblins, Fae.  Tulips Mean Love, which appeared in Finding Love’s Magic, takes place in my Crimson Series world.

I hear voices in my head, telling me their stories, and so I write them down. I’ve always had characters and stories running through my head for as long as I can remember.

Twenty-two years ago I lost my parents. To deal with their loss, I wrote. A lot.  My husband, John, encouraged me to join a writers group. He went on line and found GRW. I joined RWA, then GRW. A few months later was Stone Mountain Workshop. With encouragement from my critique group, which included Mary Barfield and Gina Dyer. I submitted Crimson Tears. The manuscript was 489 pages, single spaced times roman 8.

Nancy Knight was the one who received my manuscript. Before she even started her critique, she slid a copy of Harbrace down to me. Yes, it was that bad. And, by the way, I still have the copy of Harbrace, and use it often, though I should probably obtain a newer copy.

Nancy, liked the concept of the storyline as well as the story, but informed me that I needed help with the mechanics of writing. Nancy suggested that I turn the ‘EPIC’ into several stories. She also informed me to kill the purple prose.  Out of Crimson Tears came the first four stories of the Crimson Series.   Crimson Dreams, Crimson Hearts, Crimson Moon, and Crimson Tears.

My Crimson Series is about a race of people, vampires and shifters if you’d like. Remember when I said I stumbled into the wrong movie at age 8? Well, that one move started me thinking: What if every legend was based on some truth?  What if vampires, gargoyles, shifters did exist? What if they were the missing link? From there, I began jotting down their profiles and came up with the Dhampir, which  is a Balkan folklore about creatures that result from a union between a vampire and a human. In my world, they are not immortal, but just age real slow. They value family. However, since the world does not know about them, they have to remain in the dark and in this age of technology, that’s becoming and harder to do. As crazy as this may sound, they are not the monsters, even though there are some among them who are.  As far as what I want my readers to come away with, it’s no matter what life throws at you, you can and will survive. I also want my readers to know that family may not be the people who you are related to, but the people who always have your back and who love you no matter what  you’ve done or who you are.

I find writing relaxing. I love to write. What I find so frustrating is the submission process. You submit a query, you’re told it’s great and they want your story. Six months later you receive a letter telling you to change this or that, because vampires now sparkle, or Elves and Fae are out and you now have to make all you werewolves mermen. But, hey, the concept of your story is great. Can you move the setting to New York instead of the fictitious world of Terron? LOL.

Now for the hard question. Favorite authors/influences, and why? H.G. Wells, Twain, Poe, Shakespeare, Bronte, Austen, Tolkien, McCaffrey. I can get lost in their words.

My more modern writers include: P.N. Elrod, Gail Carriger, Celia Kyle, Georgett St. Clair, Eva Langlais, and so very many more. I like authors who write about strong women. It doesn’t matter if the woman has some challenges to overcome, that’s part of the conflict, but I cannot stand weak whining women who cannot seem to get themselves out of a wet paper bag.  I like to read about women who have a little bit of sassiness to them. But I don’t want to read about a freakin’ B, unless she’s the villain.  I love seeing more strong women in Romance and Fantasy. I want to read about females who can figure things out and even save the male hero from time to time.

On the opposite end, I’d like to see less ill-mannered people, unless they are the villains. I guess what has me on this roll is I just finished a book.  I kept reading to see if the main female character ever changed. She didn’t. All through the book she was mean, ill-mannered and never cared for anyone but herself.  And this was a romance. I don’t know if this is a new trend or not, but I’m finding more and more of this in the stories I’m reading. I don’t like reading it.

I love to read stories that leave me feeling good at the end. I love to read stories that have happy endings. Maybe I should say satisfying endings.

I guess I still want the knight in shining armor, and yes, the knight can be a female. Just look at Joan of Arc, and Queen Elizabeth I as well as the women in The Order of the Hatchet, or even the women in the Order of the glorious Saint Mary, founded by Loderigo d’Andalo, a nobleman of Bologna in 1233, and approved by Pope Alexander IV in 1261, was the first religious order of knighthood to grant the rank of militissa to women. These women were kickass!

(Many thanks to Ms. Fields for sharing her wonderful insights.)

Five Favorite Animated Movies about Girls

Since Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip was a substantial part of my growing up — I loved Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus so much (and still do) that I overlooked how unlikable most of the girls were — The Peanuts Movie got a pass on being one of the legion of boy-led animated movies, and my husband and I went to see it, eager to reconnect with our twelve-year-old selves. The movie is quite charming, if not as profound as 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with its point that the world doesn’t end when we lose. My main complaint would be that Linus, always my favorite and the character with whom I most identified when I was growing up, doesn’t get enough to do.

But yet again, the trailers were my least favorite part of my animated-moviegoing experience, as they offered another round of evidence of how committed Hollywood studios seem to be to turning out cartoon features about boys, for boys, despite the recent box-office successes of some girl-led films. One of the trailers, Kung Fu Panda 3, reminds me of the kinds of movies Pixar used to make, in which the protagonist might be male but female characters are still important and interesting; this one I might see. Another, The Secret Life of Pets, appears to have a mix of male and female pets, and it isn’t quite clear just which of them is the central protagonist; this one, too, I’m curious about. But in the others — Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (why, Hollywood, why?), Angry Birds, Norm of the North, and Ratchet and Clank — male characters dominate overwhelmingly, to the point where a female character is lucky if she gets to utter one brief line. I doubt I could be dragged to them.

But enough complaining. Rather than focus on the huge number of animated movies that all but ignore the existence of girls (when they’re not pushing them into “princess” roles), I want to highlight five of my favorite animated movies that center on girls, that let them be the heroes of their own stories and even save the day.

  1. Inside Out. I find this recent Pixar film far more satisfying from a feminist standpoint than Brave, the studio’s first female-led movie. While Brave‘s protagonist is skilled, energetic, and flawed, she’s yet another princess who isn’t in line to inherit a throne or to claim any authority in her own right. But in Inside Out we meet Joy, a female authority figure who must learn, through a journey outside her comfort zone, to wield her authority more wisely. She’s the driving force among the emotions that move inside Riley, a twelve-year-old hockey-playing tomboy dealing with her first real loss, the loss of the home she loves. This circumstance is pushing Sadness, another great female character, to play a larger role inside Riley’s head, and Sadness herself isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Joy’s first flawed impulse is to keep Sadness at bay, but the journey they take together helps her understand balance. Joy doesn’t have to surrender all her authority in the end. Instead she learns to delegate, the mark of a responsible leader.
  2. When Marnie Was There. Japan’s Studio Ghibli is the unrivaled king of female-centric animated features, and it’s no accident that three out of my five choices are Ghibli releases. This film, like Inside Out, looks  at the ways a young girl copes with loss, though in all other respects it couldn’t be more different from the Pixar film. The protagonist, Anna, wins my interest immediately for being an outsider, an introverted artist who lashes out at well-meaning but ignorant people who try to help or befriend her and who despises herself for being “unpleasant.” Rarely do we see a girl protagonist so wonderfully flawed. In order to become her best self, she must love and lose all over again, and her bond with the “ghost child” Marnie is a touching and charmingly detailed depiction of girl-girl friendship. Anna may not save the world, but she saves herself by choosing love over safety. Also worth noting is the way female characters lift each other up: Marnie lifts Anna, while Anna lifts the energetic pig-tailed girl she befriends, and  adult women like Anna’s foster mother and her friend are shown as wise and supportive, rather than dimwitted in the manner of so many adults in movies with child protagonists.
  3. Kiki’s Delivery Service, another Ghibli release about a young girl’s journey to maturity. Kiki, like Anna, is an outsider, a witch among ordinary mortals who isn’t quite sure how to make friends, but unlike Anna, Kiki is basically happy, and is eager to explore her difference rather than suppress it. To understand her power, she must lose it and confront the possibility of doing without it. Yet her true self comes through when it counts, and she saves the day for others as well as herself. This film, like When Marnie Was There, shows female characters supporting each other. At different points in the story, Kiki is aided by Osono, the baker’s wife who becomes her foster mother, Ursula, the artist who paints her portrait, and the grandmother whose gesture of gratitude for Kiki’s flying-delivery work gives the young witch heart when she needs it most. By the end, she has found friendship and love not in spite of her different-ness but because of it — and that message never gets old.
  4. Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind. I suppose it was inevitable that a “princess story” would turn up on this list, but then, Nausicaa is a Studio Ghibli princess, and as such diverges sharply from the usual “princess” personality we’ve come to expect. Nausicaa is a total Mary Sue. She’s a sky-rider, a diplomat, a scientist, a savior, good at everything she tries. And I adore her for it! It’s a treat to meet with a heroine so unapologetically awesome, realism be hanged. She has those painful moments of self-doubt that are very much a part of young adulthood, but it’s her boundless empathy and her determination to find out and do what’s right for her kingdom that make her a heroine worth rooting for.
  5. The Princess and the Frog. Don’t be misled by the title. The female lead, Tiana, isn’t really a princess at all. She’s a working-class African-American girl with abundant talent and ambition. I chose this film to represent Disney on my list because even though I like many of the heroines in the “Disney Renaissance” films that have appeared since 1989, only Tiana has concrete, focused aspirations, her goal of being a top chef at her own restaurant already set before the main plot gets started. She may find love, but her ambition remains consistent. It’s gratifying to meet a heroine who is already remarkable in her own way when the story begins, rather than being made remarkable by circumstance. Plus — Spoiler Alert — SPOILER ALERT — she gets to put an end to the villain herself. And honestly, in how many Disney films have we seen that?