Friday, December 19, 2008

"...a bit of nostalgia for the old folks..."

...which is, oddly, me. The title here is extracted from a side-long experimental composition by Frank Zappa called "Lumpy Gravy", released on LP in 1967. It is spoken with the insouciance of youth, ending with a sneering chuckle before a jump cut to a snippet of surf music, followed by F.Z.'s interpretation of Fibber McGee's closet-opening sound effect. (I know: too obscure, too soon.) The reason for the placement of the surf guitar was a mystery to all us post-'Heads until the release of a CD, several years back, entitled "The Cucamonga Years" which chronicled Frank's days as a line producer for Del-Fi Records, and one cut that jumped out of the tracks with that same refrain.

If a wry, self-mocking tone seems exhibited in this remark, it is also about as genuine an emotion as F.Z. ever betrayed in any of his songs (with the possible exception of "Watermelon In Easter Hay", which is not only an instrumental but, arguably, his most profoundly elegaic guitar solo). In text, it was the oft-quoted paragraph from the liner notes to "Ruben & The Jets"--his 100% retro doo-wop album, the last with the original line-up of the Mothers of Invention--wherein he explains: "This is just a bunch of cretin love songs by a bunch of guys sitting around in rock and roll suits, lamenting the old days. You'll be doing the same thing in a few years, if there's anything left around to sit on." Succinct and pithy, yet aching for a simpler, classic period of innocence and unadulterated passion for...well, music, I guess. But much more is implied in that statement as well.

Which brings me to the subject of this essay. Christmas.

And this is the last thing I am going to say. The text included here was written in 2003. A dear friend, Karen Jahne, was dying of cancer. Her husband Rick had decided to have an old-fashioned party at their home up in Tarrytown, where everyone would tell a story or sing a song and we'd entertain each other just like in "A Christmas Carol" wherein Scrooge drops in on his nephew. However, he didn't anticipate how tired she was and we never got around to making it that merry. This was what I wanted to say. (It was written to be performed aloud, remember.)

It is entitled: "Beats the Dickens Out Of Me"

"Once upon a midnight dreary—no. That’s not right.
Long ago in a galaxy far, far away?... Wait a minute! That’s not it either.
Uh... When in the course of human events...? Ok. I know this is going in the wrong direction. For sure.
Now... let me see... hmmm... uh--T’was the night before... NOPE! Even that’s wide of the mark.
Let’s get down to basics.
Don’t touch that dial!
Ahhh... Now we’re getting somewhere.
And where is that? Well, we could try to trace its origins back to the time when the channel 11 yule log would burn all night long. That it now only appears for two hours (is it still two? or less?) indicates how far we’ve come from the source...
And what source might that be? Well, it must be the Holiday Spirit. (I refer to it under that title as advised by the marketing department as being more friendly to those not of the Christian persuasion. And for those who would follow Dr. Ron Karenga’s Kwanzaa or the thirtythreehundredth or so celebration of the Festival of Lights, or even the stray Bahai looking for the Interkelary Days, we hope you will find a suitable translation available to the text of your own choice or tradition.)
But I digress.
Yes. The Holiday Spirit, to be sure, but also the most universal appeal of such: the television Holiday Spirit.
Right. Way ahead of you. What does the Idiot Box have to do with the virtues of commonality and communion via convivial consumption? Well, there’s no getting around it: just like that flickering fireplace loop aforementioned, it has stood the test of time, and like the Menorah miracle as never goes out! It has been there for us, rain or shine, snow or surf, wherever and whenever, and always offering the options of choosing your level of involvement with the Holiday Spirit, whether you need it or not.
Try to imagine your world without these templates for white liberal guilt, bogus sentimentality, false nostalgia, and an impetus to spend beyond ones means. “Miracle on 34th Street”—a testimonial to New York as the cultural center of the known universe as well as the canniest publicity stunt for any retail merchandiser in the annals of cinema (actually equalled slightly by the Mays Co. copywriter who dreamed up Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer to lure more kiddies to their suggestion-laden Santa...and thereby gave birth to both the Tex Ritter rendition and the Norelco-sponsored, Burl Ives-narrated puppettoon special); “It’s A Wonderful Life”--which, following the studio’s failure to renew its copyright license, became so oversaturated in past season’s schedules that it was quite possible, on any given Saturday or Sunday up to the climax of the period on December the 25th, to deconstruct the entire life of George Bailey--perhaps, by simply zapping around, creating a viewing sequence to see his suicide attempt, the jitterbug dance over the swimming pool, his saving brother Harry from drowning, old man Potter gleefully marking everyone with an immigrant name 1A at the draft board, George attempting to embrace his wife-not-to-be and having the old maid scream, and simultaneously find him singing “Buffalo Gals” with her on the streets of Bedford Falls. (Almost enough to make the Wooster Group weep with jealousy); and--of course--the ultimate in roasted chestnuts, and I refer, without a doubt, to “A Charlie Brown Christmas”--and that this is being fast replaced by the South Park version, I attribute to the foul-mouthed funsters more eccumennical message in including, amongst the other hymns of praise, “A Lonely Jew At Christmas.”
Now, for those of you raised in a faith whose observance bars attendence to such pine bough substitutes, you may excuse yourself at any time to go forth and sing carols, spin draydels, whack piñtas, or don kenté cloth and dance the toi toi with Desmond Tutu--as you will.
But, passing all these other incidents of moderne ephemera, the one prescence that cannot be discounted is that of Charles Dickens immemorial perennial, “A Christmas Carol.” And the simple reason for this is that, as of this point, and discounting the rather unfortunate attempts at updating (including one role reversal with a woman playing the old bastard’s role, the extremely bland weeper as depicted--in a dubious coup of miscasting--by Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, and the all-too-much-of-an-in-joke-to-be-believed Bill Murray as the broadcasting network executive manifestion), there are no less than five feature-film and tv special incarnations of Ebeneezer going around the stations and cables. (I now have even seen one, on the overnight PBS programming, that pre-dates the 1936 Reginald Owen, being so ancient as to be little beyond the Muybridge kinescope.) Certainly, the post-war England version, with Alistair Sim in the lead role, is considered as definitive, and with good reason: it keeps most of the Hoggarth miseries and social realism amid the homilies to home and hearth. That no one bothered to do another until the George C. Scott made-for-tv in 1984, shows to go you how long and how strong it was and is. (I except the musical “Scrooge” with Albert Finney--admirable and charming as it is, in adapting the Broadway stage to the technicolor screen--from this sequence only as the novelty of adding song to the reveries imparts, to the major dramatic events, the strong warning gong of production numbers to the degree that the most famously creepy part (next to Marley’s introduction, clanking and screeching like the IRT hitting a bad section of tracks) of the long night’s journey into day--that of the visitation of the ghost of X-mas the Unknown--takes a side trip to become a delerious revel with the jolliest funeral this side that of the Wicked Witch of the East.)
Now, as for the Scott, it was still a tad less than the Sim-u-lation, but restorative to the general intent of scaring the living daylights outta anyone of tender years. (After all, even ol’ Chaaas subtitled the work, “A Ghost Story of Christmas.”) And yet, what with the Shakespearian-trained/Star Trek captain of Patrick Stewart doing the tour-de-force one-man-show on Broadway for a couple years, it seemed natural that Hollywood would want to put this in the stocking before too long.
And that brings us to the subject of our sermon...
Just what the heck happened to all those Ebeneezers?
Well, if we may slip temporarilly into the media-um frame of reference, as it was in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” so it is to these wrinkled uncles: “It was said that his heart grew three sizes that day.”
Ok. Perhaps this is getting a touch oversimplified. This is, after all, the children’s holiday. But we are all adults...more or less.
So...what maturity offers to youth is the assessments of time and a long view in human affairs. Yesss. In our earilest views, we saw him as a miser, an evil debt collector without mercy or charity, a mean relative who spat at the hand of friendship proferred by his last remaining blood kin, and--beyond all that--a sourpuss for the ages. He hated and snarled and cursed and reviled and raged...and? to what end? To go home to a bowl of broth and a spoonful of bitters? This is the good life? If anyone could ever explain Scrooge to a child (who--let’s face it--never understood anything beyond Christmas Present, the kind you unwrap from under the tree), it couldn’t be any more elaborate than “Oh, he’s just...unhappy. Dear.”
And, in that, there’s about as much as the parents could ever explain...even when we knew they were full of mincemeat—Scrooge was a BAD MAN! And that’s what makes television Holiday Spirit so emblematic: the worst villain becomes the bestest benefactor, a veritable demon-into-angel, as we might judge from any one of the movies...and with only one crooked rule to measure by.
AHA! But we have a veritable gaggle of geezers to use for our sample and each overnight conversion only adds to the available database. Take Reginald, the classic sourpuss... if ever there was one. His morning after is mostly done to the tune of twinkling eyes and open-mouthed amazement and open ho-ho-hos, a bit stiff but sprightly. Now Alistair, he is another piece of work entirely. His nature is that of the mischievious schoolboy, not just giddy, but scampering and capering in his nightshirt, dancing with the charwoman, slipping into doubt in one thought and then slapping himself out of it in the next, a whirlwind of activity and a flurry of merriment. (Of course, Finney promptly breaks into the song he’d learned with the Present, yet another reason to disqualify him: a reprise rarely augurs an authentic behavioral alteration. It’s more of a new arrangement.)
So. Onto the contemporary post-contemptables. Scott’s portrayal furthers the process of un-demonizing by finding him caught on the precipice, teetering between the dream and the day, hugging his bed-curtains and crying with relief, tearing down the window drapes and being dazzled by the light. His is a pure awakening, one that opens the future to unlimited possibilities, doubting his ability to meet the challenge, but then, laughing in stenatorian shudders and wild screeches, throwing his hands to the sky in all-encompassing embrace and supplication, then jumping on his mattress to trampoline up and down until he all-but passes out from hyperventilation.
Stewart continues the process of closing the gap between characiture and character by playing Scrooge’s hand close to the chest. More than wickedness, this guy’s a poker face, a cigar store indian, a mask--it is only the eyes that portray the fear of what people will think of him should the old cold fish thaw out. So. When he gets the spirit--it’s like a light goes on in a darkened room, like flooding emotions on the river with the dynamited dam... we’re talkin’ whitewater rafting...salmon leaping all over the place.
Point is, none of these guys were, like, transforming from black hats to white robes: they were remembering how to have take pleasure in every single moment—from public embarrassment to pranks, from walking a morning stroll to dancing a bacarole.
Which leads us to finally getting the goods on Ebeneezer: he wasn’t a bad man becoming good...he was a sad man getting happy. Like—Yahoo!
Hmmm... Didn’t I say that the mature view could add something to the youthful one?
--Oh! Right! It’s just like the series said: Mother knows best (Ok, literary license, alright?) and we just can’t figure it out until much later on...
But that’s Life--and Television--isn’t it? Receiving a signal from afar and uncoding it down the line? They’ll keep unspooling our past every year as much as we’ll keep playing the same songs, stringing up the same lights and hanging the same bulbs on the tree. With remote at hand, the distance between now and then turns into a flip of the channels until you get something to give you back a bit for paying attention to it. And better if you can fast forward thru the commercials.
So... think of the Holiday Spirit here as if it were an old acquaintance come on a regular visit, hmmmm? What makes it better are the presents the Present present!: a few new toys, some fresher woolens, a hot hardback from the bestseller rack... and different relations than we had last year. And an outlook on the future... Like who the heck will join the hoary hosts the next time the ghosts do the roast? Johnny Depp? Leo DiCaprio?? Keanu Reeves??? Brad Pitt??? Matt Damon??? Tom Hanks???
I dunno. Beats the Dickens outta me."