Tag Archives: Ebenezer Scrooge

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption


I posted a few days ago about holiday memories being the best gift you can give yourself.  One of mine that I didn’t get into in great detail was my annual required viewing of the 1951 film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  This seminal tale, which has probably done more to shape how Christmas is celebrated worldwide than any other work of literature, has been adapted for stage, television and film hundreds of times, the earliest surviving movie being a 6-minute silent British version in 1901.  The version aired most often every 24th of December, and most beloved by both critics and families, is the 1951 remake, titled either Scrooge or A Christmas Carol depending on which print you happen to catch (avoid the colorized version at all costs), starring Alastair Sim as the pitiless miser who learns to change his ways following a 1:00 a.m. visit from three pesky spirits.  My father introduced me to it when I was very young; he and my uncle were fond of quoting it at length, badly imitated British accents and all, during family holiday gatherings.  Now, as a father myself, watching it is the last thing I do before turning out the light on Christmas Eve.  And while my son is not likely to understand why Dad’s making him watch this boring black and white thing that doesn’t feature Iron Man in any capacity, it’s important to me to carry this tradition forth for as many years as I’m able.

Consequently it’s difficult for me, as it is with most of the movies that I look upon fondly, to sequester my emotions and memories and evaluate the movie from a strictly critical standpoint.  Since it was the version I grew up with, I was surprised to find scenes and characters missing and/or altered in later remakes (like the 2009 Jim Carrey CGI version) that turned out to be upon further investigation inventions of screenwriter Noel Langley and not part of the original story.  It might be sacrilege to suggest that anyone could improve on Charles Dickens (or would even dare to try), but for once, we have an example where exploring deeper into the background of an ostensible villain enhances the stakes of his journey.  Langley’s script switches the birth order of Scrooge and his sister, making Ebenezer the younger brother who is estranged from his father after his mother dies giving birth to him, paralleling Scrooge’s later disenchantment with his nephew Fred who has cost him the life of his beloved elder sister Fan in the same way.  We also see Scrooge, after apprenticing with the jolly old Mr. Fezziwig, come under the influence of the corrupt Mr. Jorkin (a Langley creation) who seduces him to the dark side of capitalism and ultimately introduces him to Jacob Marley, the man who will become his equally covetous business partner.  (Gosh, could this sound any more like Star Wars?)  But it all works.  Ebenezer Scrooge was not born a bad man; like so many of us he made bad choices and reacted adversely to what a cruel world threw at him.  He hardened his heart to avoid feeling sad and eventually to avoid feeling anything at all.  Langley’s insightful adaptation shows us more of what Scrooge has lost, deepening our desire to see him reconnect with the meaning and importance of Christmas.

None of it would matter, however, if the performances weren’t there, and Alastair Sim’s is probably one of the best ever put to film.  His is without flaw, equally credible in full miser mode and giddily standing on his head upon achieving his catharsis, by turns terrifying and repulsive, then endearing and delightful.  And as I noted earlier, his inflections around choice lines are the stuff of impersonation fodder for both professionals and fathers and uncles decades onward.  He is matched perfectly by Kathleen Harrison, Cockney charm through and through, as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s charwoman (i.e. housekeeper), another role greatly expanded from the Dickens original.  In fact, there isn’t a poor performance in the lot.  It’s a treat as well to see Peter Bull, perhaps best known as the Soviet ambassador in Dr. Strangelove, as the film’s narrator and the business acquaintance of Scrooge’s who insists he won’t go to the funeral unless lunch is provided, and Patrick Macnee, the original John Steed of British TV’s The Avengers, as the young Jacob Marley.  If you’re a detail-oriented James Bond fan as I am, you’ll also enjoy spotting Francis de Wolff, the leader of the gypsy camp in From Russia with Love, as the jovial Spirit of Christmas Present.  The acting by the ensemble is so good that it remains fresh and surprising even after dozens of viewings – you really feel the sorrow of the Cratchit family on the loss of Tiny Tim and revel in the triumph of watching him run towards the reformed Scrooge at the finale.  You hate Scrooge’s guts for treating everyone so poorly and laugh with him as he tries to contain his glee in finally figuring out the truth that has lain dormant beneath the Christmas snow.

The possibility of redemption remains a powerful driver of human existence.  Most major religions, and the criminal justice system, are predicated on the concept that atonement and forgiveness are always within reach.  Even for the secular, Christmas can be a time where we can tally the events of the previous year, come to terms with them and resolve to make the necessary changes going forward, with a sense of renewal, optimism and hope.  No matter what kind of year I’ve had, whether it’s been a time of robust progress or of perceived stagnation, putting on A Christmas Carol and watching Alastair Sim’s Scrooge plead with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come that he’s not the man he was, is an important reminder of possibility, that it is never too late.  The challenge, however, is in making enough of those changes so that you begin to live your life as robustly as the post-ghost Scrooge.  So that you become, as Peter Bull intones, “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”  Perhaps that’s the lesson my father wanted me to learn by making me watch the movie every year.  It’s certainly one I want to pass on, and I’ll make my son watch it until he gets it too.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone.


What to get yourself for Christmas


A cynic has no easier target than Christmas.  As November wanes and December waxes, garlands rise incrementally around the malls, Fox renews its annual War on Christmas™ coverage and the radio stations shuffle over to endless repeats of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” the holiday season reboots with all the originality and fervor of the latest superhero remake.  As the ornamented train shambles into the station, it brings with it the usual trappings of tinsel, spiked eggnog, impossible toy wish lists tailored by marketers and advertisers, hour-long quests for parking spots and harried photographers trying to capture the split second between tantrums as the toddler squirms on the lap of the weird bearded guy in the fuzzy red suit.  Movie studios roll out their usual December double act of just-in-time-for-awards-consideration artsy pieces and cheaply-cobbled- usually-starring-someone-from-a-failed-sitcom holiday fare for our consumption along with the millions of slain turkeys, pigs and tofu sloths we will burn for five hours and set amidst the plastic paraphernalia of our impeccably adorned dining room tables.  We will then gather the clan of people we’d ignore on the street if they weren’t related to us and consume our approximate body weight in shortbread and stuffing while hoping we don’t have to be subjected to yet another lecture about kids these days from the annoying uncle who dips too deeply into the punch bowl.

I nearly succumbed to this attitude the other night, while propelling our otherwise efficient and modestly economic vehicle at a funereal pace over gray sludge-strewn streets behind a throng of other roving metal boxes bent on the same destination.  Patience burned away to embers, and if not for the presence of my son in the back seat I have no doubt a few choice profanities would have splattered across the inside of my windshield.  Other than the exhaustion brought on by the end of the work day fused with sub-zero temperature and the (excuse the hyperbole) sheer inhumanity of total darkness at 5 p.m., there was no reason for it.  But for that brief moment, my Christmas spirit was absent, as though I’d left it in my other pants.  It is, I realized, a challenge to keep it.  No wonder Scrooge needed three scary-ass poltergeists to get him back into shape.

Christmas, as we’ve come to know it now, practically dares you to hate it.  It dares you to throw your hands up in resignation at the consumerism, the kitsch, the frequently awful music, the endless toys demanded from Santa that will be forgotten by February and the obsessive desire of some to recreate a neo-Dickensian display of forced family unity.  The pursuit of the “perfect Christmas” can be more of an exercise in stagecraft, as in designing the ideal movie set to permit the spontaneous eruption of merriment.  The “spirit” of Christmas is codified in a series of boxes to be ticked off:  tree, lights, cards, food, brown paper packages tied up with string.  I’m an atheist as you well know, but I sympathize sometimes with the Christians who put the “Keep Christ in Christmas” signs up out on their lawns alongside the backlit nativity scenes.  What are we celebrating, really?  The desperation of retailers to make up for months-long dry spells with one orgiastic year-end blow-out?  The ritual removal of millions of trees from the ecosystem to spend a few weeks inside living rooms before they are ground up for mulch?  Nerves frayed to the point of splitting in ensuring that everything goes exactly as planned and the turkey doesn’t catch fire?

To me, Christmas is best enjoyed broken down into small moments that form a series of triggers of positive emotions, both in connections to Christmases past and the forging of new memories to be cherished in the future.  The indelible scent of pine caught in the faintest whiff as you stroll into the kitchen for breakfast.  The adorable hand-crafted googly-eyed gingerbread man ornament smiling with a red felt mouth from within the branches.  The glow of candles and garland lights saturating the house with warmth as banks of frozen white pile up outside the windows.  The glint of those lights reflecting off the shiny wrap of the piles of gifts crowding the base of the tree.  Snowmen standing valiant guard outside.  The taste of cranberry, of red wine, of orange and of chocolate, popped into one’s mouth when no one is looking.  The scratches and pops on an old vinyl recording of a favorite holiday tune performed by a long-deceased crooner.  The telltale rattle of Lego in an unopened gift.  Fighting drowsy eyes to watch the 1951 A Christmas Carol for the thirtieth time while clad snug in brand new pj’s.  The silence of a house asleep, waiting for the arrival of Mr. Claus.  The face of the exuberant child beholding the bounty for the first time as cracks of sunlight spill through the windows and yawns escape lips.  The hug exchanged following the reveal of that most treasured item on the list that justifies in a heartbeat the hours spent combing the stores to find it.  And at the end of everything, sitting back on the couch, hot cocoa in hand, spouse curled up alongside, reflecting on a year of significant ups and dreary downs and thinking about the promise of new days to come.  Your mileage may vary, of course, but like the song says, these are a few of my favorite things.

You have to look for these little slices of wonder, be aware when they manifest and relish them before they disappear.  It’s the only way to avoid getting caught up in the pressure cooker that can often be the holiday experience and the overall dread of the inevitable January credit card bill.  But even the most notorious of failed Christmases will have its sublime moments hidden amidst the veil of falling snowflakes.  So grab a few this year and put them in your stocking.  They’re the best gift you can give yourself.

What are yours going to be?

Dear Pasty Republican Billionaires: Haven’t You Got Anything Better To Do?

Founder of the new Super PAC, “Americans for a Prosperous Tatooine.”

You can’t read U.S.political news lately without seeing a story about a septuagenarian Republican one-percenter with a hate-on for the President pouring millions of his fortune into a new Super PAC.  Thanks to Citizens United, right-wing sugar daddies are emptying their coffers to Karl Rove and ilk to flood the airwaves with ads blaming President Obama for everything from sunspots to the common cold.  Figures like the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Foster Friess and most recently, Joe Ricketts, are positioning themselves as the new architects of what is left of American democracy.  You’d think that achieving staggering levels of wealth would be enough, but apparently, multiple mansions and car elevators are not where it’s at anymore.  These oligarchs-in-waiting are determined that the government is destined to be a rich guys-only club, and who gives a damn how many poor people get steamrolled out of existence in the process.  In fact, the more poor are simply obliterated, the better.

Stories about Republican Super PAC funders seem to have one thing in common – the men in question are uniformly old, bloated and incredibly sour-faced, as if their soul has been eaten away by a lifetime of stress, drinking, smoking and rage.  Paul McCartney told us that money can’t buy me love; these characters are the embodiment of that axiom.  These real-life Charles Foster Kanes have conquered the business world, crushed enemies in their wake and accumulated wealth to rival that of the pharaohs.  But love remains elusive for them, no matter how many zeroes in their Cayman Islands offshore holding account.  Nobody loves these guys.  No young boy goes to sleep at night dreaming of being a hedge fund manager and forcing people out of their homes.

Instead, Republican billionaires squirm and twist in a constant state of paranoia, terrified that colleagues, friends, family members and even the postal carrier who slips on the ice in their two-mile long driveway in Aspen are scheming to take everything away.  It’s no surprise, given the path a man has to take to claw his way into mega-millions.  You simply don’t get there by being adored.  How frustrating, then, that others of far more limited means can still manage to find love.  Joe Ricketts’ recently announced plan to dredge up Reverend Wright again centers on trying to make voters hate the President.  Not disagree with his policies; hate him.  So, presumably, the President can then feel as down-trodden and hopeless about life as Joe Ricketts must.  You get the feeling that we could have been spared the phenomenon of the Super PAC had their mothers just hugged these people more.

What Ricketts and the rest of these billionaires despise most about President Obama is that he is everything they are not, and will never become.  Truly self-made; someone who came from nothing and got where he is by working hard and applying himself, instead of being parachuted into accidental greatness by a generous trust fund.  A man with a beautiful wife he clearly adores beyond words and a happy, loving family.  President Obama is a greater embodiment of the American Dream than any of these grumpy old guys.  Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, he has the ability to inspire people across all walks of life, and around the globe.  Hope and change remains a potent campaign slogan because it appeals to our better angels.

For crusty old billionaires, this does not compute.  They believe everyone is as greedy and money-grubbing as they are; that altruism is a fool’s game, that no one ever does anything out of a simple wish to be good.  And it positively bakes their collective noodles that not everyone wants to be rich.  The majority of us just want to earn enough to look after our families, so they don’t have to worry about getting sick or feeding themselves or having a roof over their heads.  Amazingly, you can still do that without millions in a diversified asset portfolio, and working hard at that goal despite difficult odds is far more likely to earn you genuine love than the extra fifty million you’ll earn if Obamacare is tossed by the Supreme Court.

Simply put, a heart that is rotting cannot lift others.  The Koch brothers may have helped the Tea Party become a ground-shifting political force, but no one would ever accuse David and Charles Koch of being inspiring men.  They and those like them don’t inspire with words and ideas; they push with threats and cattle prods, because they don’t know any other way.  And they come to envy and hate the ones who do.  Whenever you see Karl Rove’s picture, this pudgy, balding sinister figure without a kind word to say about anything left of Genghis Khan, you can’t help thinking that he must have been the fat kid who was always picked last for the team, and is continuing to take his revenge on the popular kids forty years on to satisfy some long-simmering Freudian dysfunction.  And it is all so futile.  Mitt Romney could sweep all 50 states and half of Australia and these people will still be stewing in their self-loathing and cursing their inability to feel any better.  No one will love them any more.  They’ll feel even worse if they blow all this cash and President Obama still wins.

So here is my modest suggestion.

Take the money you had intended for your Super PAC and found a charity instead.  Build a school.  Refurbish a hospital.  Fund cancer or AIDS research.  Erect a nature preserve.  Start a new business and hire some people, for god’s sake.  Then go visit one of these places anonymously and look for the genuine joy in the eyes of the people you’ve been able to help.  Just stand there and soak it in – the sense of gratitude, of warm feelings.  Let your heart quicken.  Feel the love.  Then think about how you can do even more.  How good it will feel when a child whose life has been saved because of an initiative you backed mentions you in their prayers before going to sleep at night?  Wouldn’t that be amazing?  Don’t you like the idea of being remembered, like Ebenezer Scrooge at the end of the story, as “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world”?  Or would you rather spend your money on TV ads demonizing the President of the United States, ads that will be as forgotten as swiftly as you will be the day your rotten heart finally croaks its last beat?

Ball’s in your court, Super PACs.  I know I’m sleeping fine tonight.

Decision points

Yes, I’m aware of the irony of titling my first post of 2012 after George W. Bush’s autobiography.  Decisiveness is one of those traits highly valued in leaders, that they are firm and resolute in their convictions.  Strangely enough it seems immaterial what those convictions are, as long as they are unwavering – someone who takes the time to examine an issue thoroughly before committing to a course of action is dismissed as a ditherer.  It’s assigning total vindication to the concept of leaping before you look, inasmuch as it matters less that the leap will actually kill you than it does that you were certain about leaping in the first place.  I’ve chosen this topic for my 2012 leadoff slot because it relates to my sole New Year’s Resolution:  to be more decisive.  Which is not to imply that I’m advocating the abandonment of sound judgment; it is certainly not to suggest substituting recklessness for reason.  Rather, it is the idea of committing fully to a course of action instead of hemming and hawing and gaming out all possible failing scenarios first.  Acting the latter is the equivalent of standing on the side of a busy roadway watching cars race by, when you really should be in that race.  You should have been in it eighty-three laps ago, but you’re waiting for an elusive “perfect moment” to jump in.  Truthfully, you’re not waiting for a perfect moment.  It’s a fable you’ve conjured to rationalize your unwillingness to shift into gear and step on the gas.  It is the eternal lament of the coward who has resigned himself to never trying.

We can sit back on our couches and slam the politician with the redneck opinions, the auto-tuned singer of dubious talents but ample cleavage, the latest hack vampire novelist, the hopelessly wooden thespian, the football team that never wins.  But every single one of those people chose to stand up and try.  It doesn’t matter that they may have succeeded because of how they look or who they knew or just plain dumb luck.  They could have stayed home and kept to themselves, settled for a less than ordinary life.  Something compelled them to take that fateful step into traffic.  Ambition is not a vice; indeed, it is the driving force at the heart of all human progress since the beginning of time.  I’m writing this on a computer and sharing it with the world because someone long ago decided they wanted something other than pen and paper.  And before that someone decided they wanted something other than chisels and stone tablets, or charcoal and cave walls upon which to record their thoughts and stories.  Star Trek was never about going timidly where thousands had gone already, if, you know, it was perfectly safe to do so and no one else would be upset by it.  Hard to imagine getting excited about a television series like that, isn’t it.  As it is hard to imagine getting excited about a life of hesitation and half-heartedness.  Those who make a mark on the world use their whole heart.  One shudders, like Ebenezer Scrooge confronted by the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, at the prospect of looking back from the tail end of life at endless opportunities forsaken and dreams that never got off the ground.  That beautiful girl you never had the courage to ask out.  The trip you never took.  The jobs you didn’t apply for, the promotions you didn’t chase after.  The novel you never submitted to a publisher.  The treasures locked inside your soul that you never chose to share with anyone else.  What then are you taking with you as you shuffle off this mortal coil?  What are you leaving behind?  Someone, I think it was Mark Twain, had a great quote about being more disappointed twenty years from now by the things you didn’t do, than by the things you did – regardless of whether you succeeded at them or not.  Regret is the most burdensome of Jacob Marley’s chains.

My promise to myself for this year, then, is to charge at life.  If I am to fail, then I want to fail with a huge Graham-shaped hole left in the wall I just ploughed into at full speed.  (Full credit to Aaron Sorkin for that delightful metaphor.)  Moreover, I hope to never again answer the question, “What do you want to do?” with “I dunno, what do you wanna do?”  That is giving up one of your most precious freedoms as a human being – the freedom to decide the course of your own life.  Even in matters as seemingly nonchalant as what to have for dinner.  2012 for me, is to be a year with no regrets, and no chances passed up.  That is the stuff of living itself.

Oh yes.  And I also promise to blog more.