Tag Archives: holidays

Of Scrooge and holiday redemption

scrooge

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.

Holiday wishes for 2011

I don’t want to believe that on the whole, people are stupid.  As I get older and grumpier though I’m finding it more difficult to reconcile my liberalism and my faith in the eventual betterment of humanity with the evidence.  We are a week and a half away from closing the book on a year that saw the merits of wealth and greed extolled over the virtues of altruism, self-sacrifice and the understanding that we are all in this together.  We have seen science demonized, facts ignored and truthiness become the guiding principle of government – as Asimov feared, brazen ignorance treated at the same level as expertise.  Being right is not enough.  Loud, not love, conquers all.  And the worst part is, we all know better, but we let the bad guys win anyway.  Why?  Are we just too lazy?  Has humanity just collectively decided to not give a rat’s hind parts?

Dennis Miller, with whom I agree on absolutely nothing, had a great line on one of his specials back in the 90’s, the last time I remember when optimism ruled the day.  He asked, “Why have we become so quick to exalt the banal, and so begrudging of the truly consequential?”  Who’d have thought that fifteen years later, it would only get worse?  The most famous family in the world right now is so not for their charitable work or their noble contributions to their fellow citizens, but because they are vapid, shallow and fundamentally useless seekers of celebrity.  It would benefit us all if we paid greater attention to the tribulations of our own families (which, ironically, has no financial cost) than forking out cash and felling acres of forest to keep up with the talent-bereft Kardashians.  And ridding ourselves of this scourge can be as simple as tuning them out and asking a friend to do the same.  If countless videos of adorable cats can go viral, why not also a campaign to raise our collective intellect?  As a start, I promise that this is the last time you will see that name on this blog.  They will no longer take up rent-free space on Graham’s Crackers.

What else can we do to step up our game in 2012?  Why not make this the year that we cease endorsing bullies or the use of bullying tactics in any form, be it in the high school halls, the pursuit of elected office or government itself?  If repeated viewings of The Karate Kid have taught me anything, it’s that nobody really likes the Cobra-Kai douchebags or wants to see them win.  Similarly, we should stop rewarding the political equivalents of Johnny and Sensei Kreese with our vote and consequently the right to mooch off the tax dollars that we entrust to them to ensure we are healthy, safe and free of fear.  Let’s demand maturity, tolerance and intelligent debate from all parties and stop electing or otherwise supporting hormone-juiced frat boys who honed their diplomatic skills playing Call of Duty while high on Red Bull and vodka coolers.  Our governments, like our schools, really can Get Better.

Other things to do in 2012 to enrich yourself and stem the tide of dumbing-down:

  • Read books that do not have vampires in them, and at least one that is over 100 years old.
  • See more live theatre and local musicians.
  • Go for long walks amidst the trees.
  • Instead of just posting what you’re doing on Facebook, ask your friends what they’re doing.  Make plans to see them more often.
  • Unfollow Charlie Sheen, Snooki and any other famous-for-being-train-wrecks on Twitter and encourage a friend to do the same.
  • Try more local restaurants.
  • Never use LOL or OMG again.  Learn a few phrases in Latin to pepper your status updates with instead.
  • Support your local conservation authorities by exploring your neighbourhood parks.
  • Listen to music made by people who are not supermodel-attractive.
  • Write something – a blog, a book, a haiku, it doesn’t matter which.
  • Don’t vote for the guy who’s angry all the time.  He has issues, and none of them involve making your life better.
  • Do something friendly for a neighbour you barely know.
  • Don’t buy Us Weekly, People or any other tabloid magazine devoted to celebrities.  If you must, then plant one tree, bush or shrub for every issue you just can’t live without.
  • Hug a puppy, kitten, bunny, lamb, pony or any suitable baby animal.
  • Make your own list of suggestions like this and pass them on.
  • Keep reading Graham’s Crackers!  (Sorry.)

Start with the little things.  You’ll be surprised how much you like them and how much you don’t miss the other noise.  Maybe together we can start, very slowly, turning this behemoth called civilization away from the shoals of ignorance and back toward the heights of what it is within our capability as human beings to achieve, absent only the decision to realize that potential.  I promise it’ll be worth it.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season.

Graham

Zen and the art of snowman construction

After an unseasonably warm and extended fall, the first snow of the season tumbled to earth yesterday.  It didn’t last long, but for half an hour at least November looked like it’s supposed to.  With the mercury plunging below freezing last night I’ll go out on a limb and say we even stand a better than average chance of a white Christmas – call me old-fashioned, but it doesn’t seem right exchanging gifts and eating turkey when outside is a sea of dead leaves and asphalt.  If global warming reaches its zenith that’s one Bing Crosby song future generations will find inexplicable.  “What are you talking about, there’s never been snow on Christmas.”  (The duet with David Bowie on “Little Drummer Boy” is the other – still don’t know what was up with that pairing.)

Something else we’ll miss too is building snowmen.  Even when it does snow nowadays it’s difficult to find that perfect, temperature-teetering balance that proves ideal for snowman construction.  Too warm and your raw materials are slippery slush; too cold and the snow won’t pack together.  Ironic too, that the temperature best suited to build a snowman is also least suited to keep it around for long.  In a few short hours your masterpiece becomes a lump on the lawn with only the corncob pipe and button nose to remind anyone of the gentleman who once stood there greeting the passersby.  As illustrated in the lyrics to Frosty, the snowman by his nature is a transitory creature.  He is emblematic of the need to seize the moment, and to appreciate that moment to the fullest while it lasts.

The best snowman I have ever built, bar none, was an ambitious creation assembled on a snowy December day in 2007.  A healthy blanket had fallen during the night and the temperature was hovering around zero – prime conditions to start rolling.  It started out with the usual approach – roll a big ball for the body and a smaller one for the head.  Luckily there was plenty of snow in the driveway to use without having to spoil too much of the area around where the snowman was to stand.  We had the basic structure in place and were pondering how to finish it off when my better half suggested a twist – why not make a snow bunny?

That set the imagination afire.  We remolded his head, adding a snout and carefully shaping it to ensure it didn’t look too much like a pig.  Ears were next, followed by shoes, some stubby arms and a puffball of a tail.  A bow from an old Christmas decoration was repurposed as a necktie.  Unfolded paper clips became whiskers.  The master stroke, however, was cutting up pieces of a charcoal air pre-filter to use as buttons, nose, mouth and the all-important eyes, taking a little design inspiration from Looney Tunes along the way.  Now all he needed was a name.  The proximity of the holidays provided le mot juste, and Hoppy the Snow Rabbit was born.

Not the kind of snow bunny you'd see on the slopes...

Much like his famous brethren, Hoppy was not long for this world.  The air got progressively warmer and snow became rain.  The first to go was an ear, and by the time the sun fell, after providing smiles to pedestrians and the drivers of many passing cars, Hoppy was no more, living on only in scores of photographs taken of our accomplishment.  Perhaps we knew we wouldn’t top ourselves, because we haven’t tried to build a single snowman since.  Life – or, more to the point, the desire to stay warm on snowy days – has gotten in the way.  But that December day we brought Hoppy to life is one we remember with clarion detail, unlike so many others that have ebbed away into the stream of lost thoughts.  Was it the sheer joy of working together to build something special, or the surprise at the wonderful creation that resulted?  I suppose it’s a bit like the day I wrote about a few posts ago; the one thing they share is the act of creation itself.  Making something, even if it isn’t lasting.  Building becomes building memories.  Good ones.

If you have the chance, if the temperature is just right, get off your computer, bundle up, step outside and build a snowman.  It doesn’t have to be a work of art.  It just has to be.  Then step back and let yourself smile.  I think you’ll be glad you did.