Friday, December 19, 2014

Christmas Traditions

Happy holidays, folks. This is usually the day when I contemplate my seasonal affective disorder, but it isn't bothering me this year, for some reason. Maybe I outgrew it. Hey, the sun is shining! All my Christmas presents are bought! What could be nicer?

So instead of griping about being depressed I thought I'd talk about traditional Christmas activities that my family and other families have indulged in over the years, things I've seen and heard about that charm me. The latest belongs to my dentist's assistant. Christmas Pajamas.

When she and her husband were very young and her little boy was a baby, they hadn't much money for presents, so they agreed to give each other a pair of pajamas. On Christmas Eve they came home from church, opened their pajamas, put them on, and wore them all through Christmas day. They still do this. All three of them open their pajamas on Christmas Eve and wear them all day on Christmas, even going out to visit the wife's sister and her family (who may also be wearing their own Christmas pajamas. The practice is spreading).

Our family has a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve, though I never thought of pajamas. This tradition began many years ago in Woodbury, New Jersey, when my Dad was serving in the navy in Camden and we rented the downstairs half of a house. The landlords, the Harneys, lived in the upstairs half. Mrs. Harney, a very sweet woman, had a boy of her own but no daughters, and so she was pleased to wrap up girlie presents and give them to my sister and me on Christmas Eve. We opened them by candlelight. I still remember some of the things she gave me, an interlocking set of wooden doll furniture that you could take apart like a puzzle and put in the doll house, a pair of four-inch porcelain dolls dressed up like a bride and groom, or it might have been Fred and Ginger, in evening clothes. I still had them after we moved to Illinois, where I loved them to pieces.

In Illinois our neighbors, the Fuldes, hosted a huge family party every Christmas. One of the features of this gathering was the awarding of the Cow Plate. It was a dinner-sized plate hand-painted with a picture of a Holstein standing in a field. To be given the Cow Plate was an honor, signifying some great achievement of the previous year, getting married, having a baby, buying a farm, or whatever the Fuldes and Bainbridges could think of to merit the plate. It was not a thing of beauty. That was part of the fun. I dimly recall that the ceremony was accompanied by a chorus of "Roll Out the Barrel." I had a crush on one of the Bainbridge cousins, and so they let me hang around.

To be in love at Christmastime is the best tradition, I think. And to have a baby lying under the tree. Harold and I put John under the tree for his first Christmas while we opened presents. He was about six weeks old. He slept through it all, and so he doesn't remember any of it. But I do.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Regifting the Holiday Movie

This season, I decided to do something radical. Rather than obsess about all the decoration and holiday cards and cleaning and baking I never had a chance of getting done, I would spend more time having real holiday cheer. 

I'd go out to dinner, have people over, meet for drinks. Get together with friends.  

Here are a few, from my other career's holiday party Wednesday night, some of them worthy contenders in the Most Hideous Christmas Sweater contest, which I got to judge. Yes, that's me in the elfin cap. 

I opted for fun this year. And a lot less stress.

I don't normally re-gift, but this year, I was busy enjoying myself, and I decided to re-gift a blog.  

Last November, I shared my top 5 holiday film recommendations. 

And if on this last Thursday before Christmas, you're still obsessing about what will never get done, you might want to throw in the holiday towel -- the one that you have to remember to wash separately or it turns your husband's undershorts pink -- and have a little fun. 

Sheila York

A List Without the Pressure (November 2013)

I know. Already you’re behind. Back in July, you made a list of all the things you’d do for the holidays, back when you thought you’d suddenly turn super-human. You bought a glue gun, for heaven’s sake, because you just knew you’d have time to make wreaths and centerpieces and hand-made cards. You’d have plenty of time to clean; heck, you’d refinish the floors. You’d find a very special new side dish that would become a family classic. You'd be worshiped. Your holiday table would look like a magazine and you wouldn’t say one harsh word to your sister even though her idea of helping is standing in the kitchen door with a dish towel.

Okay. Put down that list and back away. Nobody has to get hurt here.

You need a new list, that’s all. Just like when you have to exchange a gift because, while your mom is a dear sweet soul, she still tries to dress you in pink argyle.

Here’s what you’re going to do. Find a movie and watch it. And you’re only going to be interrupted if you want to be, maybe by trips to the kitchen for a snack reload. You’re going to turn off the phone and the tablet, and throw a tree skirt over them; then send the kids to their friends’ houses. I’m sure their parents would love visitors this time of year. Tell everybody you’re going to spend an evening watching something that doesn’t have a promo creeping onto your screen telling you to watch something later, instead of enjoying what you’re watching now.

But what to watch? 
Here’s where the new list comes in. 

There are plenty of classic Christmas tales that show up over the holidays, and show up and show up and show up: A Christmas Story; It’s a Wonderful Life; Miracle on 34th Street; Home Alone; White Christmas (described by a friend as “the whitest musical ever made”); and umpteen versions of Christmas Carol.

But, while I was not thinking about whether I can spatchcock a 14-pound turkey or bake five sides at five temperatures in two ovens, I went back through dozens of films set during the holidays and made a list of some of the ones I’d like to spend time and calories on.

See if there’s anything on it for you.

My final list is eclectic, but then I love all kinds of films. It might be tilted a bit toward period movies, because that’s where I live most of my creative life, with my heroine screenwriter. In addition, my picks were influenced by availability. I would have recommended Remember the Night (Barbara Stanwyck & Fred MacMurray), but it’s not easy to get hold of. You can catch it, however, December 17 on Turner Movie Classics.

Here we go. A few picks, in reverse order of preference, for your consideration.

5. The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942)
Bette Davis, Monty Wooley
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein, based on the play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; Directed by William Keighley

Sheridan Whiteside, famous wit, radio host and literary critic, takes over the small-town Ohio home of local leading citizens when he’s temporarily confined to a wheelchair after falling on their icy steps during a speaking tour. Gloriously spoiled and self-centered, he commands the household, manipulates lives without a second thought, and entertains an eccentric parade of visitors, many of whom were based on real life celebrities such as Noel Coward, Harpo Marx and Gertrude Lawrence. [Alexander Woollcott was the real-life inspiration for Whiteside.] 

Played by Monty Wooley without pulling punches, Whiteside is a tyrant used to adoration and obedience. But when he goes too far and threatens the happiness of his secretary, who’s fallen for a local Joe, he — for Christmas Day at least — is forced to consider the consequences of his behavior. 

While Bette Davis is pitch-perfect as his uptown-girl secretary, it is not a perfect film. The staging is, well, stagey. And the local Joe is out of his league. (Many otherwise entertaining period films are marred by a weak performance from someone the studio had under contract for their looks.)

Still, it’s a spirited, highly diverting time-capsule glimpse of Broadway legends Kaufman & Hart sending up their celebrity friends and the people who take abuse to be around them.

Try something tart with it, like a tall glass of holiday-red Campari and soda.

If you’re not drinking, something salty, like peanut brittle.

4. Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck, Dennis Morgan
Written by Lionel Houser and Adele Comandini; Directed by Peter Godfrey

Leave your logic out in the cold, make yourself a hot buttered rum, curl up and enjoy Barbara Stanwyck in this screwball tale of a popular homemaking & food writer who enraptures readers with magazine articles full of blissful details about her perfect life on a Connecticut farm — all of which is a total fraud. Elizabeth Lane, the envy of millions of American women, lives is a New York apartment and can’t boil an egg. Because she loaned him money to buy his restaurant, a local chef has been dishing her recipes while she invents the rest.

When her publisher (unaware of her deception — I told you, leave the logic outside) decides it would be great publicity for her to entertain a naval war hero for the holidays, she has to scramble to find what she needs, beginning with a farm in Connecticut, someone to pass as her husband, and a baby.

Dennis Morgan, popular as both a singer and actor in his career, in thoroughly winning as the sailor she falls for, and their forbidden attraction (remember, she’s supposed to be perfectly married) gives this light entertainment some heart. Sidney Greenstreet as her publisher, determined to get off his doctor-mandated diet and get some of her famous cooking, and SZ Sakall, as the anxious chef trying to derail the heroine’s pending marriage to the wrong man, add fine decorative touches to this holiday package.

3. Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Alan Rickman
Written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, based on a novel by Roderick Thorp; Directed by John McTiernan

McTiernan’s shatter-the-glass spectacle is over the top in so many ways. But most of them work, thanks to the confluence of McTiernan’s taut direction, the source material from Roderick Thorp, and the lead performances — Bruce Willis at his wise-acre best; Bonnie Bedelia, who makes a complete character out of a mostly reactive role; and Alan Rickman as the masterfully smooth villain. [Don’t tell me J.K. Rowling didn’t change the nature of Severus Snape after seeing Rickman’s performance in the first Harry Potter film.]

You probably know the plot. You’ve seen variations of it tried dozens of times since: supposed terrorists hijack an entire building in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve and demand a fortune to release their hostages. Only a New York detective, accidentally there while visiting his estranged wife, stands in their way. 

After a long day of holiday shopping, set out a good bottle of whiskey and a big bowl of caramel corn, and remind yourself — even when the stubborn stupidity of upper-echelon law enforcement reps and the trite portrayal of journalists begin to grate — why action film makers have been trying and failing for decades to match Die Hard’s impact.

To this day when a building blows up on screen, David and I say (often in unison): “We’re gonna need a shitload of screen doors.”

2. We’re No Angels (1955)
Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray
Written by Ranald MacDougall, based on a play by Albert Husson; Directed by Michael Curtiz

It’s not often you get light-hearted and Devil’s Island in the same sentence, let alone in a holiday film.

Three convicts escape the Devil’s Island prison and insinuate themselves into the lives of a sweet, but bumbling local shop-keeper, his wife and their daughter, with robbery in mind to fund their trip off the island. While perfecting their plan, they discover their intended victims are facing ruin at the hands of an officious, but respectable relative who considers it just good business to throw them out and break the daughter’s heart by forbidding her to marry his son.

What are criminals to do? With a blithe disregard for traditional morality, they dispense their own justice, and disarm you completely while they’re doing it.

Bogart holds his own, toe to toe, with Ustinov in snappy patter and droll asides. And Aldo Ray as their young, amoral pal is a grand foil for them both. [You should catch Ray’s brilliant performance as the dim-witted boxer in the Tracy & Hepburn vehicle Pat and Mike. The man didn’t get to make enough good movies.]

I think you need to munch on some old fashioned sugar cookies for this one, and open a bottle of something sparkling.

Now we get to my #1s. Yes, two of them.

Your choice here depends on whether you’d like a holiday story about love or a really dysfunctional family.

1. The Lion in Winter
Peter O’Toole, Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Goldman, based on his play; Directed by Anthony Harvey

First, big thanks to Annamaria, who reminded me about this classic film. We were chatting about our holiday favorites, and she said, “Lion in Winter.” I laughed out loud. Then immediately realized how brilliant a choice that was and decided to steal (uh, homage) the idea.

Acting doesn’t get much better than O’Toole and Hepburn as King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. Once passionate for each other, his affairs and her conspiracies have turned love’s flame into a relentless desire to immolate the other. After years confined by the king for her attempts to overthrow him, Eleanor is invited to spend Christmas 1183 at court and together as a family — and what a family. Two parents and three sons feasting on treachery, all plotting to manipulate the others and control who will be named Henry’s heir.

Beyond the two leads, there’s the treat of seeing Anthony Hopkins long before the fava beans and nice Chianti as son Richard; a naughty, deceitful turn by Timothy Dalton as the king of France; and the frustration of John Castle as son Geoffrey, who is every bit as conniving as the others, but can’t figure out why no one wants him on the throne. You might find the characterization of son John a bit off-putting, to put it mildly. Henry’s determination to name this filthy and not-too-bright scoundrel his heir is only explicable because Richard is a bit too close to mommy, who encouraged him to lead rebellions.

But oh my, when O’Toole and Hepburn parry and thrust with Goldman’s bright, bracing dialog, the sky lights up.

You’ll need something to keep you warm though. Lion in Winter also does a terrific job of showing that winter in a medieval castle was, figuratively and literally, not for the thin-skinned. So maybe a throw rug and big mug of mulled wine.

Of course the heat of the constant family friction might help a little.

Outside of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, no film couple has been so dysfunctional and so riveting.

1. While You Were Sleeping (1995)
Sandra Bullock, Bill Pullman, Jack Warden
Written by Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric LeBow; Directed by Jon Turteltaub

This film is first-line proof of the adage that 90% of directing is casting.

Lucy is a lonely young woman (and a bit of a recluse) who longs for love while selling tokens in a Chicago transit booth. She fantasizes about a future with a handsome lawyer (Peter Gallagher) she sees every day on the platform, and when he’s accidentally shoved off it and knocked unconscious by thieves on Christmas Day, she jumps onto the tracks to save him. At the hospital, where he remains in a coma, a nurse overhears her musing “I was going to marry him,” and, quickly, not only has Lucy been ushered to the man’s side but also embraced by his family as his fiancĂ©e. Then she meets his bother.

It’s a credit to the director Turteltaub, Bullock and Warden (as the family’s longtime friend who knows her secret) that you’ll buy why she can’t tell them the truth, over and over. And the actors playing the wacky members of the family pull real people out of what on the page would look hokey and jokey. The cast even manages to beat back the efforts of the musical score to tip your insulin balance.

Bullock and Pullman are at the top of their game, and love unfolds quietly and naturally. The scene between the two ought-to-be lovers on the slippery pavement in front of her apartment is a classic.

You have to have chocolate for this one, maybe a whole chocolate cake. And in honor of that scene, how about a little ice wine to go with it?

Sheila York

Copyright 2013, Sheila York

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Noir

As we close in on our annual celebration of “the day the angels sang,” I am lining up a bevy of films to keep me from needing insulin injections, as would be the case with consumption of normal cinematic holiday fare.

Here are the Christmas movies I recommend to ward off hyperglycemia:

Though not really a Christmas film, The Victors certainly has the most unforgettable juxtaposition of a grim scene with a traditional carol.  It takes place during World War II and is based on an actual execution of an American deserter.  You can watch the 1963 British anti-war film on YouTube.  You will know what I mean as soon as you hear Frank Sinatra’s voice.

There is a ton on the Internet about this year being the hundredth anniversary of the Christmas Truce of World War I.  A great movie that covers that territory is Joyeux Noel.  Made in 2005, of the three films here, this one is the most heartwarming.  But it does take place during a war that killed millions, so it won’t take you too far from reality.

And then there is my favorite Christmas movie of all time, The Lion in Winter.  A splendid cast, a fabulous script, and a portrayal of a family holiday gathering that will make your family look benign, not matter how dysfunctional you think you are. 

These choices, I admit, are quirky, but you can eat candy with impunity while you watch them.

Happy Christmastide!

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, December 15, 2014

Another Dark Movie—Klute

When I was nine, I wanted to see KLUTE, with Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland. I wasn’t a particularly sophisticated nine-year-old movie goer, but it was Saturday night and my parents were going. They often took my brother and me to the movies, to all kinds of movies, and I still remember seeing PLANET OF THE APES, FUNNY GIRL, and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO with them. Of course, I liked PLANET OF THE APES the best. But KLUTE, said the parental units, was too adult, which really made me want to see it. No dice. My parents went off to the movies, and Matt and I were relegated to watching KUNG FU with the baby sitter.

In retrospect, my parents were right. Too adult it was. Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her portrayal of the prostitute Bree Daniels (Bree sounds like her working name, doesn’t it? Bree would be a name for a prostitute like Candy would be a name for a stripper, I couldn’t help thinking as I watched), and she is excellent in her portrayal of a complex and troubled woman. While there is a mystery/thriller element to the movie (where has Tom Gruneman disappeared to, why did he write “sick” letters to Daniels, and is it he who is stalking her now?), it’s pretty thin, and every review I read talked about how the crime angle was just an excuse to do a little artful exploration of gender roles circa 1971.
Donald Sutherland is the cop, John Klute, who saves Daniels from the stalker, who is perhaps also a “john” (customer) come back to haunt her, and in the process Klute figures the whole mess out. I could have figured it out at nine. In addition, the camera shoots not from the perspective of the stalker, but over his shoulder, which is disconcerting.

And the music is right out of some NBC semi-scary movie of the week of that time period. It certainly doesn’t get into what motivates the stalker (Gruneman’s boss, who killed Gruneman when Gruneman discovered the boss was a “freak” who liked to beat up prostitutes). And as a cop, Sutherland is the strong silent type to the point where he almost disappears from the movie. He has two facial expressions to cover everything from fear and anger to confusion and stomach upset. One reviewer compared him to Calvin Coolidge. Most reviewers also questioned why they bothered to name the movie after him, and one suggested they should have called it “Prostitute in Search of an Identity” or some such, although to me that sounds more like an exotic French movie title.

You figure out who the stalker is pretty early on. And you don’t get any insight into his character or Klute’s. The movie does explore, in depth, the character of Daniels. It doesn’t give any easy answers, though, to what makes her tick, and I don’t think that is a failing. There are no easy answers to those kinds of questions. Why is Daniels a prostitute? Is being a prostitute harmful to her, or is it empowering in a hypocritical and patriarchal society that objectifies women and denies them the opportunity to be economically independent like men? Why does she always need to be in “control” in her relationships with men? Why does she always need to manipulate those relationships, instead of letting herself become attached to someone, to nurture and be nurtured, and all that warm and fuzzy stuff? Who the hell knows?

Daniels wants an answer. She goes, with her mod clothes, thigh high boots and shag haircut, to an analyst who is appropriately grey-haired, although she has no Viennese accent, and they try together. Daniels says she likes hooking, although she is trying to get out of the business, and she is going on auditions for Off Broadway type plays and perfume commercials, and yet she is lonely and sad. The analyst does that annoying analyst thing, not giving an answer when Daniels asks for her opinion, but asking “how do you feel?”

They say that an analyst’s job is to be a cipher, content free, blank, so you can imagine them to be your mother or father or other significant other, and then to aim all your angst at them as if they were that that person. Interestingly, it is Klute’s blankness which becomes something Daniels can project all her feelings about men onto, at least at first, when in that blankness he seems to her like he is incorruptible. She successfully maneuvers him into bed, figuring all men are led around by their nether parts and he is no exception.

Then things get more complicated. He shows her a kindness and compassion that is not simply a quid pro quo for sex, and she becomes confused. She says to the therapist she feels frightened and out of control because this kindness and her warm feelings towards Klute him make her feel like she is in danger. So much so that she tries to go back to her pimp, Frank Ligourin, played with greasy, overacted glee by Roy Scheider.

When she does so, we have what perhaps is the most stirring scene, or the most overdone one, in the movie. As Ligourin and Klute fight (and Sutherland kicks his ass, which I just couldn’t get my head around, this guy from Animal House beating up a guy who was in The Seven Ups and Jaws and was in real life an undefeated amateur boxer), Daniels picks up a knife and ends up attacking not Ligourin but Klute.

And still Klute is loyal to Daniels, and in the penultimate scene saves her from the “freak.” Just before that scene there is one where the two go shopping for fruit in an open air market. It is the one sweet and romantic scene in the movie, and though they do little more than smile at each other, it seemed real and was affecting. At one point, as Daniels stands behind him, she gets closer and closer to him, and you can see she wants to put her arms around him, to rest her head on his broad back, but she doesn’t, perhaps absolutely can’t.

The fact that Klute must save Daniels from a misogynist psychopath at the end is telling. In the kind of world Daniels lives in, hookers, and indeed all women, need to be protected from woman-hating freaks. The deeper questions the movie asks, like why does Daniels pick the life she chooses? (Many women in a patriarchal society, and many women afraid to let go of control in their relationships with men, don’t go the route she does), and will their always be men like the freak no matter how we structure gender relationships in our society? , go unanswered, as they should. No one has those answers, not really, and I doubt any one ever really will.

As a movie about the 70’s, I was intrigued. New York was portrayed as a cesspool. The seamy underbelly of the city included strung-out junkies and murdered prostitutes. The reality of death from drugs or violence for women in the world’s oldest profession was vividly portrayed. There is even a discotheque scene with an uncredited appearance by Sylvester Stallone. Everyone talks about letting it all hang out, and about who has hang ups and how they are going to get rid of them, and Fonda tells her clients to ask her for whatever they want, that “nothing is wrong” and I was surprised to find that all this seemed quaint. It was hot stuff in my parents’ time, but not now. Everyone is looking for fulfillment, and no one finds it. That’s perennially true, isn’t it? Daniels asks Klute if he is impressed with all the lights, the sin and the glitz and the glamour, and he says it is all so pitiful. In the end, Fonda is still looking for fulfillment, leaving the city with Sutherland to bravely face a brave new world. Is it a futile gesture? Who knows? The 70’s didn’t have the answer, and neither did Klute. Sometimes the point of a movie is not to answer questions, but to ask them.

© 2014 Mike Welch

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Moses Byington, the Tidewater Girl Scouts and My Crime Characters

What do Moses Byington (a 1918 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy of Annapolis) and the Girl Scouts of Tidewater Virginia have in common?

Pull up a chair by the fire in my den, share a pitcher of Broken Hearts, recipe by Sheila York, and I'll tell you…

It was dawn after one of the worst hurricanes that ever hit Tidewater Virginia in decades. The low-lying city of Norfolk was either under water or frozen in shock at the devastation. Traffic stopped, streetcars stalled, even the world-famous Naval Base was almost at a standstill.

Two high school girls reported at sunrise at the site of Camp Apasus, the Girl Scout Day Camp of the Virginia Tidewater Girl Scouts.

Why? Because we cared. We were junior camp counselors, Melissa Warfield and I, both honor students at Granby High, Senior Scouts who tried to live by the Girl Scout Promise: "On my honor, I will try, to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Laws."

Melissa, a gifted person in outdoor survival skills, would serve later as Dr. M.A. Warfield, Director of the King's Daughters Hospital in Norfolk. I would follow paths of teaching and administration in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Manhattan, devoting one year as Norfolk Director of the Girl Scouts, under the leadership of the inspiring Georgie Harris, a dedicated public servant, who had trained both Melissa and me, as well as hundreds of other young people, in the arts and skills of outdoor living and surviving, both at the day camp and the regional Camp Matoaka, on the beautiful tree-lined shores of Lake Prince, near Suffolk.

We learned a lot in those years—the meaning of service, sharing, discipline, responsibility, self-knowledge, innovation, creativity, loyalty—the Girl Scout Laws were as a bible to us: "I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, responsible for what I say and do, respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, and make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout."

Your word was your bond in living that close to nature—open to the elements after a storm, a hurricane, unseen dangers.

When you are raising the roof of a canvas tent to shelter children—you have to work in perfect concert with your peers. There is no room for grandstanding or self-absorption in the deep woods, where underneath wild beauty lurks danger—spiders, poisonous insects, snakes, dark leaves—a hundred species of wild life.

Activities near one of the most powerful naval installations on the planet—where friends, relatives, neighbors were often employees of the U.S. Navy—were permeated with a visible and symbolic presence to us Scouts. Patriotism was as much a part of daily life as breathing!

So, how does this fit into the Crime Writer's Chronicle???

The combination of this heavy naval presence and background, combined with family tales of my relative, Moses Byington, inspired my early drafts of crime fiction, centering around a band of men who had served in the U.S. Navy. The scope included an ex-Navy SEAL, an ex-naval Commander, their women, and extended to other areas of service, such as the NYPD, Tennessee and Rhode Island police, sheriff units, the CIA, the White House and various posts in the nation's capital. And as time passes the circle has widened to include Manhattan psychiatrists, a governor's wife and a raft of other professionals.

To any serious writer, one's characters are as real as the people who inspired their existence, the wonderful professionals I was privileged to serve with—on the shores of Lake Prince and Chesapeake Bay.

As the Girl Scout song goes, "Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver, the other gold."

T.J. Straw