The Post-Christmas Come-Down

December 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

As an agnostic, I can say this without shame: the anticipation of Christmas is always better than the holiday itself. I love that month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, all “Sleigh Ride” on the radio and Meet Me in St. Louis on TCM, going to see The Nutcracker and driving through Christmas lights displays. Christmas itself always tends to be kind of  a wash for me–in the service industry, we work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, so extended celebrations or any kind of relaxation are out of the question. It’s always a last-minute rush to get to the relatives’ house and back, often complete with sickness and no sleep, while I gorge myself on candy and cookies and feel miserable for it afterward. As an aspiring-but-usually-incompetent minimalist, the acquisition of gifts makes me feel more guilty than good. My family has reached that age where all of the younger generation are no longer kids (my youngest cousin just turned 18), but none of us have kids of our own yet, so there’s none of that vicarious magic-of-the-Christmas-spirit thing going on–we’re all just old and jaded. I end up enjoying the trappings of Christmas more than I enjoy Christmas.

Still, December 26 always comes so abruptly, doesn’t it? Maybe I’d feel differently if my vacation ever lasted that long, if I got to spend it lazily going home, shopping and spending a little more time with family and friends. But instead it’s back to work. Meanwhile, the carols have disappeared from the radio, TCM’s line-up has returned to its usual secular format, and there’s no good excuse to take mini-road trips to Chicago or drink hot cocoa spiked with peppermint schnapps. I mean, is that going to stop me? Probably not. But still, it’s nice to have an excuse.

For years, I’ve advocated that we push Christmas back to January 25th. After all, it’s not like Jesus was actually born in December. Stores will get an extra month after Thanksgiving to push their goods on us, Christmas is almost guaranteed to be a white one, and after it’s all over, we only have to make it through another two months of winter instead of three. Seems like a winner of a plan all around to me.

Love Actually

December 22, 2011 § 2 Comments

I have an ex-boyfriend who hates this movie. It’s unrealistic, he claims, and cheesy. We get so little time with each character that we have no reason to invest in any of them, which doesn’t matter because everyone is a thinly drawn cutout anyway. Other complaints I’ve heard, from other people, include but aren’t limited to the following: Karl (the dude Laura Linney is interested in) is a first-class asshole for bailing on her after their failed hook-up, Keira Knightley is a first-class asshole for kissing her husband’s best friend when she’s supposed to be a  blissful newlywed, the 9/11-referencing opening is manipulative, nobody can learn to play the drums or speak Portuguese in a month.

Well, duh. A romantic comedy that’s overly sentimental, manipulative, and cheesy, with occasionally unlikeable characters and unrealistic plotlines? What is the world coming to?

I put this film on every holiday season, largely because it’s one of the few that accurately captures the anticipatory buzz of the holiday season for me. Jacqueline recently wrote that one of the reasons classic movies get Christmas so much more right than modern ones is that they put Christmas in the background rather than the foreground, wallpaper decoration for the movie rather than the point of the movie itself. Love Actually is one of the few modern movies I can think of that follows the classic holiday film formula instead of the modern one–the only plot that actually centers around Christmas itself is Bill Nighy’s Billy Mack storyline, where he’s aiming for the Christmas number one single slot. Everything else in the movie could have  happened at Easter, on Veteran’s Day, on a random Thursday in July. And that’s why, despite its seemingly modern conceits (porn star stand-ins! interracial marriages! going to America to get laid!), this is the only holiday movie created in the last fifty years that’s perennially on my playlist.

And despite my ex-boyfriend’s claims, the movie also gets love right–or at least righter than most romantic comedies. (Let’s be fair: that’s not setting a terribly high bar.) While certain scenes are straight fairy tale, no chaser (Colin Firth’s proposal, Hugh Grant and Martine McCutcheon’s backstage kiss), generally the movie presents a much more realistic and complex portrait of love, in its infinite variations, than many of its rom-com brethren. In this movie, love doesn’t end at the wedding. The Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley/Chiwetel Ejiofor relationships both depict love within marriage (as does, tangentially, Liam Neeson’s storyline). Romantic love isn’t elevated well beyond every other type–various plot lines running throughout the film give just much weight to love between family members, friends, and even between employer and employee (note: I’m talking about Bill Nighy here, not Alan Rickman). Love is presented as infinitely more complex than in most romantic comedies: Keira Knightley can kiss her husband’s best friend for reasons other than wanting to have an affair with him, Alan Rickman can cheat on his wife for reasons other than not loving her, and Laura Linney can love her brother while also wanting to kill him sometimes.  And while every plot line gets some sort of conclusion, not every one is a happy one. We get just enough fairy tale endings to keep the film upbeat, but just enough that aren’t to confirm that love is not an effervescent glittery rush all the time. Let’s go and get the shit kicked out of us by love, indeed.

There’s one thing I can’t forgive the film for, though–and no, it’s not that nobody can learn to speak Portuguese in four weeks. It’s the fact that Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve never would have existed without Love Actually, which inevitably would have been titled Christmas Eve had it not been created before the days where plot descriptions sufficed for titles. Still, that’s a small price to pay in exchange for the only modern Christmas movie on my list. Or is it? Is it?

Christmas in Connecticut

December 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

The set-up for this movie is utterly ridiculous, but the pay-off is so adorable I can forgive it. The first time I watched Christmas in Connecticut, I texted my best friend, “I’m watching this bizarre movie where soldiers pretend to propose marriage to nurses, solely to get home-cooked meals out of them.” And that’s half the premise for this movie: sailor Jefferson Jones, rescued from a raft after his ship was sunk by a u-boat, flirts with his nurse so that she’ll hook him up with better food. He eludes her suggestions of marriage, though, which she ascribes to his “never having had a real home” growing up–so she arranges for him to spend the holidays at the home of Smart Housekeeping columnist Elizabeth Lane, a home front Martha Stewart type. And here’s the other half of the movie’s premise: while Mrs. Lane depicts herself in the magazine pages as a model housewife, complete with doting husband, bouncing baby, and Connecticut farmhouse . . . in reality she’s an unmarried New Yorker, dependent on take-out and putting off marriage offers from a long-term boyfriend. After her publisher forces her into the bring-a-soldier-home-for-the-holidays publicity scheme, she’s forced to cobble together something resembling domestic perfection on the fly. Screwball antics ensue, but Elizabeth doesn’t find it quite so funny when she starts falling for Mr. Jones . . .

Old comedies can be touchy–to modern eyes, the humor can be too hokey, too dated, too wacky. But the humor really worked for me here; it was enjoyable without going to too far over the top. And while I liked the two leads together, the film did, unfortunately, strike one of my old movie nerves in regards to its love triangle.  In 1930s and ’40s movies, and occasionally even into some later ones, a woman is generally considered “single” until she’s married, with the unattached partner in a love triangle free to guiltlessly pursue her until the moment she actually says her vows–and even then it’s no serious moral failing to keep pushing her to stray, as Jefferson Jones does here. (Of course, if they do actually stray, then by Hays Code injunction, they must be Severely Punished to Discourage Copycat Offenders. But here it’s okay because even though he thinks she’s married, she’s not! Nothing wrong with that!) To a modern viewer, this comes off as mighty cold–modern rom-coms generally require a little more compunction for chasing after a taken woman. I should be used to it by now, fan of golden-era musicals (in all their partner-swapping glory) that I am, but it still always throws me for a loop, as it did here. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to shake my preference for the men who stand politely on the sidelines until their number’s called, so to speak.

To make up for it, though, we have all that glorious food. I love to cook, butone of my niche obsessions is cooking history–the trends and dishes associated with a particular era–and for that, Christmas in Connecticut is a goldmine. A few years back, Raquelle put together a menu based on the movie: Chicken Maryland! Plum pudding! Strawberries Chantilly! They don’t make food like that anymore . . . which, in some cases, is probably for the best.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker

December 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

In the past few years, my sister and I have resurrected our childhood holiday tradition of seeing The Nutcracker almost every year. We usually see our local Nutcracker performance, with all its charming amateur quirks. (Last time we saw it, the curtain literally came down on the Sugar Plum Fairy’s head!) This year, however, we upgraded to the Joffrey Ballet’s performance instead.

The Joffrey performed in the beautiful Auditorium Theatre, a glowing, golden Victorian confection perfectly suited to a ballet that is basically the same. More important than its good looks was the fact that the theater was designed to have not a single bad seat in the house–an improvement over our usual venue, the Overture Center, where anything not in the first half of the main floor leaves something to be desired. The fact that the Chicago performance contained a live orchestra was just the marzipan on the cake for two former musicians, especially as Tchaikovsky’s score is still just about one of the most magical in the whole world for me. As an added blessing, the Joffrey production was heavier on the dancing than most I’ve seen. With many productions of The Nutcracker, you have to wait until the closing moments of the first act to get to anything beyond the very lightest of dancing, but here they made an effort to integrate it throughout.

One aspect which, unfortunately, didn’t work for me was that the production used adults in the roles of Clara and Fritz while the rest of the children’s roles were danced by . . . children. My favorite conception of Clara is when she’s played as a teenager, halfway between girlhood and womanhood, as in the San Francisco and Pacific Northwest Ballets’ versions of the ballet. A good 16-year-old dancer can do all the none-too-difficult dancing required of Clara in most productions, while her childlike innocence is still convincing–and being in between two ages can be played for some lovely dramatic tension that brings an interesting-but-not-overreaching subtext to what is otherwise often staged as a very superficial production. Barring that, I can accept a well-acted child Clara, a la Balanchine. Adult Claras rarely tend to work–as in the unintentionally creepy and somewhat infamous 1970s Gelsey Kirkland/Mikhail Baryshnikov Nutcracker video, where all that garish stage make-up just underlines the fact that Gelsey is not a child, and the “love triangle” they’re forcing on her is really frickin’ creepy. And adult Claras especially don’t work when they’re surrounded by dancers who actually are the age they’re supposed to be playing. Audiences can be asked to suspend their disbelief, but why immediately undermine it by surrounding your adult Clara with 11-year-olds who are supposed to be her best friends, and whose youthful enthusiasm and joy are genuine instead of pantomime?

Once the party scene was over, though, the age of the dancer playing Clara didn’t register quite so much, and I was able to sit back and enjoy. Another difference from many of the performances I’m used to was the busy-ness of many of the scenes, but in The Nutcracker, a cheerful chaos is not necessarily a drawback. I enjoyed seeing a more dance-heavy Nutcracker, and even my sister liked it quite a bit more than she was expecting. It might have even convinced her to go see what she terms “a real ballet” . . . Hmmm. Dare I say Giselle? I’m dying to see Veronika Part.

The Inn at Lake Devine

December 18, 2011 § Leave a comment

Some people read A Christmas Carol every December. For other people, it’s Little Women. Others might page through The Polar Express or How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Or maybe you’ve got your own personal little favorite–I’ve still got an irrational attachment to a cute little copy of The Twelve Days of Christmas featuring bear protagonists from my childhood. But the one book I find myself returning to over and over again at holiday time is Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine.

This might strike most people as an odd choice. A bare-bones plot of The Inn at Lake Devine goes something like this: Natalie, a recent culinary school graduate, runs into an old friend from camp. Her camp friend, Robin, invites Natalie to her upcoming wedding, only to be tragically killed in a car accident on her way to the inn where the wedding will be held. Natalie is thrust into the position of caretaker for Robin’s family and her would-be in-laws, developing a friendship with Robin’s fiance and his younger brother. In what is probably the peskiest detail to take into account when trying to consider this a “Christmastime novel,” Natalie is Jewish. There’s a framing device to the novel, where Robin’s future mother-in-law is an anti-Semite who once turned Natalie’s family away from their hotel on the basis of their religion–and this has dramatic pay-off later in the novel as both of her sons become romantically involved with Jewish women (one Orthodox, one Reform). The entire novel’s thesis statement, so to speak, involves the Jewish experience in America. How does it make good Christmas reading, then? Natalie captures the feeling I’ve felt so much as a lifelong agnostic–loving the trappings of Christmas, finding it beautiful, but feeling like an outsider nevertheless.

The other problem with considering this a holiday novel is that only a small portion of the action takes at Christmastime, and it’s the most tragic part of the plot! Those who are looking for cheery Christmas morning scenes of families singing carols and drinking eggnog in front of the fire should look elsewhere. But still, the book just feels so Christmassy, so lighthearted and warm, full of food and romance and family, that it fits in perfectly during the holiday season. In fact, I think I’m going to pull out my copy right now . . .

The Man Who Came to Dinner

December 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

The Man Who Came to Dinner is, hands down, my favorite Christmas movie. In it, radio personality Sheridan Whiteside is invited to dine at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley of Mesalia, Ohio, just before Christmastime. On his way up their icy front steps, he slips and falls, breaking his hip. Confined to their house for the entire holiday season, he entertains himself by making himself at home: receiving dinner guests of his own, terrorizing his nurse and monopolizing the domestics, meddling in the family’s affairs . . . and don’t forget receiving elaborate Christmas presents, like the crate of penguins from Antarctic explorer Admiral Byrd, which he allows free reign of the Stanleys’ library.

Monty Woolley is hilarious as unwanted house guest Sheridan Whiteside, and Bette Davis is just Bette Davis enough to play off his barbs in her role as his assistant. With the two of them spending the entire movie sparring and scheming, the entire film has enough bite to cut through the usual holiday comedy treacle. I prefer my holiday films with a little bit of acid mixed in with the sugar–of which The Man Who Came to Dinner doesn’t neglect, with a love-at-first-sight affair between Bette Davis and the local newspaperman.

Not everybody prefers that acidity, though. Popular opinion on this film is highly divided between those who find Whiteside’s reign of terror hilarious and those who find it sadistic and uncomfortable to watch. And while I usually fall into the latter camp while watching movies and TV–I get mad at Leslie on Parks & Rec when she’s mean to Jerry!–Sheridan Whiteside is so over the top, so downright absurd, that I can’t help laughing. And it definitely helps if you’re able to get the jokes. The first time I saw this, my freshman year of college, I found it amusing, but there were so many then-current pop culture references that I didn’t understand, so a lot of the film flew over my head. Now, with three solid years of classic movie-watching (and a little history-reading) under my belt, I actually know who Deanna Durbin and ZaSu Pitts are, who the characters of Beverly Carlton and Banjo are supposed to reference. That makes the whole thing a hell of a lot funnier. While Bette Davis gets much more praise for her dramatic acting than for her skills in comedy, I genuinely do enjoy her funnier films. Her intelligence has a way of elevating any film she’s in, regardless of the script, and I always appreciate her comedic turns just as much as I do the dramatic ones. And when she’s blessed with a clever script like this one . . .

As a final bonus, there’s Monty Woolley’s amazing mustache. I mean . . . come on.

Holiday Affair

December 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

This is a cute little confection of a holiday movie, although–in my admittedly biased opinion–it suffers from the same problem as a lot of holiday movies, which is that it’s overly reliant on a Cute Kid to tug at our heartstrings and move the plot forward. I’m biased against Cute Kids. I want them out of my movies. As children go, I suppose this one isn’t that bad, though, and the lightweight little love triangle works for me. Janet Leigh tries to decide between just-fired toy salesman Robert Mitchum and steady boyfriend/lawyer Wendell Corey–although, as Mitchum points out late in the film, it’s really not just a triangle since Janet’s dead husband is still just as alive to her as any of the men courting her. Throw in a little bit of Christmas shopping, some roasted chestnuts, and a picturesque snowfall or two, and you’ve got a solid movie to watch while you curl up with a mug of hot cocoa and a blanket or two.

And this is how you do a love triangle, folks. No making the original partner an obviously weaker option than the secondary partner. No making the original partner a jerk, leaving the audience to wonder what the protagonist saw in them in the first place. No last-second personality whiplash on the original partner’s part, justifying the protagonist leaving them. No killing off one party or forcing him to cheat or moving him halfway across the country. You just have two equally “worthy” candidates and you let the protagonist choose the one she likes best. The one who loses bows out gracefully–or, in this case, bows out gracefully in anticipation of a loss. This is a love triangle for grown-ups.

Of course, the risk you run with a grown-up love triangle is that it doesn’t successfully convince your audience that your protagonist made the right choice. I like to call this Sleepless in Seattle Syndrome. “But Bill Pullman was such a nice guy!” they say. “Why would she leave somebody she’s stable and comfortable with? He didn’t cheat on her, he treated her well, he supported her. She’s going to regret that.” The answer, being, of course, that sometimes people fall in love with people for no logical reason whatsoever. That’s love. It’s what it does.

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