It’s A Wonderful Life –

I’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) at least 15 times. How I feel about my own life and humanity in general colors how I judge the film from year to year. I have not watched it yet this holiday season but I do know how I am feeling about my life. And I believe quite soundly it truly is a wonderful life.

We’ve all been made to do things out of obligation and we have all felt trapped in circumstances that seem so far out of our reach. We’re human. Some years you feel like George Bailey before the icy dip into the river and some years you can see the possibilities.

George Bailey, our everyman hero, in It’s a Wonderful Life, isn’t in touch with his life. He’s super in touch with how his life should be. Other people, it seems to him, are living it. And there is a very bad guy who doesn’t want him to see the world. And that bad guy isn’t Mr. Potter. Potter’s a crank but he isn’t standing in George’s way.

It is George that is the bad guy standing in his own way. George blames everyone in his life. And so an angel is delivered to him at the very moment he is being his most selfish. And George begins his journey of realizing how one man’s life has a wide, wide circle of impact on others. I really hope you have seen this movie. It is life affirming and a really great holiday movie.

As my friend Greg Stowe says, and I am paraphrasing Holidays are a tough town. It sure can be stressful. And disappointment can really abound. If you let it. Some years you gotta let it. So, this year when you watch the myriad of Christmas movies out there let the sweet melt you or let it make you cold. It is up to you. Really.

I offer one more piece of advice. If you haven’t had a good cry or felt the bigness of humanity lately treat yourself to It’s a Wonderful Life.

The angel leaves one more parting gift to George and it is his worn copy of Tom Sawyer with a wonderful inscription:

“Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings, Love Clarence.”

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Lovely Intangibles –

 “Yeah, there’s a lot of bad ‘isms’ floatin’ around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck.” – Alfred, a janitor at Macy’s in Miracle on 34th Street.

Miracle on 34th Street – the 1947 black and white version starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne and little Natalie Wood is one of my favs as holiday films go.

Doris (O’Hara) works at Macy’s department store. She is also the divorced mother of Susan (Natalie Wood). Doris is super pragmatic. A real left brain thinker. She has raised Susan to think that pretending is lying. Therefore, there is no Santa and no make-believe.

Enter Fred Gailey (John Payne) the single, lawyer  who lives next door to them and Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwwen) the elderly gentleman, who is hired by Doris to play Santa at Macy’s department store – for all the gullible children.

The thing is Kris thinks he is actually Santa and so does Fred. The two decide their mission is to convince Doris and Susan that they need to believe, too. Not just in Santa but in something.

Believing or not believing is a big part of what the film is about. Is Kris a nut job or isn’t he? That ends up being determined at a lunacy hearing at the end of the film.

Fred takes the case much to Doris’s dismay. She thought maybe she would give love another chance but Fred now seems impractical. He gives up his job at a prestige law firm to defend Kris. Fred now wants to open his own practice where he will “help other people who are pushed around in this world.”

Sure, it’s a “holiday movie” about Santa but it’s not about Christmas. Santa is a frame of mind. Santa is a year-round-way-of-being. Santa is kindness and joy and love and all the other intangibles.

Doris thinks that kind of talk is really crazy – maybe even dangerous. Fred tells Doris – “(Not) to overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.”

It’s a nice change up in gender roles – the guys are about feelings and the girls are about hard edge skepticism.

How tough was it for Doris to be a divorced, working mom in 1947? Pretty tough. So maybe she had to be a little more practical than most. And, O’Hara is just dame for the role.  In my book, Maureen O’Hara was the only real threat to John “The Duke” Wayne on film (The Quiet Man, Big Jake and McLintock!).

Miracle on 34th Street is a holiday movie wrapped in a fast paced, well-acted, funny, sweet without being sentimental, good message story.

“I believe… I believe… It’s silly, but I believe.” – Susan

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Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas = Gateway to Metal – a guest post by Dan Gillotte

There are many many things I LOVE about Jim Henson’s Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas including, Emmet, his mom, the jugband, his friends, the sets and the music. BUT, when I’m really honest. I mean REALLY honest, I have to admit that my truly favorite part is The River Bottom Nightmare Band.

I know they’re jerks, especially Chuck, the surprisingly cuddly-looking yet mean bear leader. But I LOVE them. I saw this film once on HBO back in 1978 (I’m guessing) and never saw it again, but the River Bottom Nightmare Band’s song stuck with me through the ages in all its angry menace. Back in the days before Youtube, we couldn’t find clips of stuff so we had to make due with memory or fill the void with replicas. And this is why I am straight up certain that Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas led me to love Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden, Megadeath, Manowar and King Diamond in my teen years.

I mean it’s not a far stretch from this

to this, right?

So thank you, Jim Henson and friends. I’m so pleased to be able to bask in my love of the metallic mastery of The Riverbottom Nightmare Band on DVD now and it’s currently streaming on Netflix.

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Things I Get Wrong –

Kevin Smith is a good filmmaker. I just watched Red State (2011) and as ambitious movies go that deal with right wing religious/politics, homeland security and the impact on due process, and then the smaller themes of self hatred, self righteousness, repression and oh, yeah all wrapped into a horror movie model, then this movie hits the mark. (Sorry about the long sentence.)

I short changed Kevin Smith as a filmmaker a long time ago. I thought Clerks (1994) was okay. Not great. I didn’t really like Mallrats (1995) or Chasing Amy (1997). I liked most of Dogma (1999). I always liked him, though. I think he is funny and affable and smart. I read John Pierson’s book Mike, Spike and Reloaded (2004), a producer’s take on the 1990s decade of independent filmmaking. And I like where Kevin Smith came from and what he achieved. I just didn’t fit all the pieces together until I watched Red State on demand last week. That’s how I am, though. It sometimes takes a long time for me to be in on the latest craze. This one took me twenty years but I am a believer now. This guy can make movies.

Red State is terrifying and shot like a horror movie. It involves a cult of way, way righties and torture victims encased in Saran Wrap. Wow, heavy stuff. It is great seeing Michael Parks in a new movie. I haven’t seen Michael Parks in a movie since the 1980s. He was always so intense yet still understated. In this film his character is way broad and over-the-top. He nails it. Melissa Leo, current darling of the independent scene, is absolutely scary and dead on as a hate-filled creep. I remember Leo from the TV show, Homicide, and always thought in another time she would be a star. And now she is! How cool.

So, to sum up I was wrong about Kevin Smith which makes me think I might actually be wrong about other things. Thanks Kevin Smith!

Note to self –  I need to re-visit 1990’s movies in general. I know I can stay away from the junkie, soul-less movies. Is that really filmmaking or is it just being really, really bleak and hoping people see it as art? There I go again! What if I’m wrong about those, too? I am feeling ambivalent now about any criticism I have held from that decade. Maybe bleak junkie movies are where it’s at. I doubt it, but I have made some mistakes so I’ll keep an open mind. Maybe I’ll watch High Art (1998) again. It does have Patricia Clarkson.

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Happy Thanksgiving –

My most favorite Thanksgiving film is not an obvious one. It’s The Last Waltz (1978, dir. Martin Scorsese). The Last Waltz was a concert by, The Band, held on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976, at Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Billed as a “farewell” performance after 16 years of touring, the concert saw The Band joined by more than a dozen special guests, including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young.

Needless to say – it is not your typical concert film. It is one of the ultimate concert films. From Up On Cripple Creek to It Makes No Difference to The Weight to Coyote to Helpless to I Shall Be Released and on and on…

I didn’t see the film until 1988. I was in graduate school in Iowa City. I had just ended a nine-year relationship. I was alone and had the flu. My sister, Betty,  had sent me a copy of it on VHS taped from PBS. I watched it ten times over the weekend. Two things were clear by Sunday night – I felt better, I loved The Band more than I had and I developed a massive crush on Robbie Robertson. He really has wide appeal – our mother had a crush on Robbie, too. And – I am pretty sure Scorsese had a major man-crush on the dude back then. The dreamy interview interludes with he and Marty are great. (I do suspect though that Danko and Helm probably made fun of Robbie behind his back for all the attention Marty showered on him in the film.)

The Band was Dylan’s (that would be Bob) back up band for years. His performance is unusual in that he seems happy – buoyant even. Bob, love the white pimp hat.

They  also used to open for Ronnie Hawkins – think awesome biker rocker. Hawkins does a mean rendition of Who Do You Love?

And – Van the Man (Morrison) really rocks Caravan in a maroon pantsuit. Muddy Waters is A Man. Eric Clapton breaks his guitar strap. Jonie Mitchell is stellar. Neil Young is well, he’s Neil Young for FuckSake. You will think Neil Diamond is cool. Rick Danko maybe sublime. Levon Helm possessed. And –  by Richard Manuel will break your heart with his soulful voice (Richard,why did you have to kill yourself?)*.

You don’t have to have just ended a relationship or be sick to enjoy the merits of the film. Watch it for the music and get sucked in by the oral histories – from Helm talking about the Midnight Rambles of the South (which he re-creates every weekend at his Woodstock farm), to Hudson telling his parents he was a music teacher rather than a poor, touring rocker and Manuel telling it like it was.

Additional notes:

Years later, Betty and I went to a reunion concert of sorts that had Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. It was sort of sad and sort of great.

For an unsentimental take on the whole thing read rock promoter Bill Graham’s autobiography Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock And Out, 2004.

 * Robertson tells Scorsese in the film – “The numbers start to scare you. I mean, I couldn’t live with 20 years on the road. I don’t think I could even discuss it.” I thought it sounded a little rehearsed in the documentary but I guess it was still true. Richard Manuel committed suicide in a hotel room while on a reunion tour with The Band.


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Male Bonding –

This weekend we went with most of my husband’s family to a resort in the Poconos paid for generously by my mother-in-law on her 75th birthday. Saturday night was ‘Hoedown Night’. Cowboy hats and kerchiefs provided by the lodge. My husband put on a hat and wore the kerchief bank robber style. A few thoughts came to mind. First, my husband is super hot. Second, it is nearly impossible to play “dangerous bank robber ala Robert Redford and shy schoolmarm ala Kathryn Ross” in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) with a five-year-old underfoot. Third, I love westerns.

My favorite western isn’t the typical riding the range kind it’s Rio Bravo (1959, directed by Howard Hawks) starting John Wayne, Dean Martin, Walter Brennan and Ricky Nelson. (And – a supporting role by one of the Kings of the Westerns – Ward Bond.)

The film has the feel of a stage play with majority of the action taking place in the jail between the main characters mostly taking to each other: John Wayne, the sheriff (and former gunslinger) Chance; Walter Brennan, the cranky, “crippled”, old codger deputy who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em Stumpy; Dean Martin, the deputy with a drinking problem Dude; and, Ricky Nelson, the hot-shot kid gunslinger-for-hire Colorado Kid.

Within the first few minutes, Wayne’s, character Chance arrests the no-good brother (played by Claude Atkins) of a ruthless, wealthy rancher.  The drama then becomes what will happen to this rag tag group lead by Chance when the brother sends an army of gunslingers to free his kin.

Wayne is the star of this film but the story to watch is Dean Martin’s. His character Dude is a drunk who because of his drinking puts things into motion and because of his stopping drinking helps put things right. His is the redemption story. (I don’t need redemption in a film but when it is done well it sticks with you. This stuck.)

As the four wait for the inevitable show down with the hired guns and as tension and  fear builds the men talk a lot about what stuff means in this world – this is also called ‘character development’ which I miss in films now days. A Hawks strong suit, given free reign here  – are that thoughts and emotions can be conveyed with just looks and other subtle human actions. (The pain on Wayne’s face as he watches Dude struggle to regain his tattered dignity.)

The men – three of them old friends –  know they only have themselves to rely on in this mess. To kill the time as they wait – they clean and sing songs (thanks to the talents of Martin and Nelson). They look out for each other, they talk about their feelings, life philosophies. They rag on each other. In other words, they care about each other. I think Hawks threw the sexy girl character Feathers in played by Angie Dickinson solely as a catalyst for these men to talk about love and honor and respect. 

It is a talky for a western. But, I like that. The only thing sexier than my husband dressed as a cowboy is when my husband tells me what he thinks and feels.

And, don’t worry there are plenty of kick ass scenes of the shoot-em-up-kind. Each of them gets their licks in and it is awesome.

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All Hallows Eve –

My nephew Thorin (Kari’s son) will be a great scary movie companion at some point. We were at the Halloween store this past weekend and there are several interactive dioramas throughout the store. Including a life size little girl from The Exorcist replete in vomit stained nightgown spins her head completely around. There is a phone in front of the killer from Scream and it reads, “Try me”. If you pick up the phone you hear that creepy voice and then blade noises. There was a really weird one of a rat eating a human. That was puzzling me and really anyone that walked over to watch. Thorin asked for “more” so as Kari was finding a pirate outfit for him, he and I walked from one gross out scene to another. And each time he did the same thing (which I do and pretty much all other horror fans do) he would get super scared and then laugh hysterically.

It is that space between the fright and the release that horror lovers love. Autumn is a lot of things and one thing that this season brings in spades is spookiness. Trees even start to look creepy right about now with their leaves gone and their pointy limbs exposed. Think of how many hearts have skipped a beat as the bare limbs of a tree along with the wind and darkness has created a phantom on the window pane. Tap, tap, tap.

Our first killing frost occurred in Maine in various towns over the past few days and the sun dips at around 6:30. Soon it will be 4:30 and then the night is long.

Stephen King lives in Maine and is one of the writers that brought me to this state. The first time I ever heard of Maine cities such as Portland or Falmouth was in the book Salem’s Lot. I have a clear memory of drinking Russian Tea at the Holbrook’s house on the river outside of Eau Claire, Wisconsin and both Caroline and I were reading copies of the book. The weather, humid and hot with the river breeze slowly making its way up from the banks but I was chilled to the bone reading about the vampire Barlow. Caroline was a faster and better reader than I so she was way into the book. Periodically she would snap the book shut smooshing mosquitoes between the pages. During that week of reading the book I would accidently pick up Caroline’s copy and would realize I had her’s when I came across a dried smear of an insect on the page.

Vampires don’t scare me so much anymore. The zeitgeist of vampire as ‘misunderstood youth’ is now so much part of the pop culture landscape that I think we’ve forgot just how terrifying they used to be.

Happy Halloween everyone! I hope you get a good scare this most scary of all seasons. And then laugh, knowing that tap, tap tap on your window pane is just the wind and the bare tree limbs and the night playing tricks on you. Or is it? And thanks to Brother Dan for guest blogging. This most lovable man loves movies. I hope to see many more guest appearances from him.

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