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Mt. Holz Science Fiction Society
Club Notice - 12/24/99 -- Vol. 18, No. 26
Table of Contents
Chair/Librarian: Mark Leeper, 732-817-5619, firstname.lastname@example.org Factotum: Evelyn Leeper, 732-332-6218, email@example.com Distinguished Heinlein Apologist: Rob Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org HO Chair Emeritus: John Jetzt, email@example.com HO Librarian Emeritus: Nick Sauer, firstname.lastname@example.org Back issues at http://www.geocities.com/evelynleeper. All material copyright by author unless otherwise noted.
Jewish Guide to Christmas
Christmas celebrants everywhere, this article is not written for you. I have been asked to write up a Jewish guide to good Christmas music and films. On the other hand, you can look in on what I have to say. Rest assured that like Old Ebeneezer I may start out nasty and crotchety but I end up with at least some of the Christmas Spirit.
Well, the Christmas season is upon us again. Christians all over are preparing for what is for them a joyous time of year apparently. I look at this somewhat as an outsider, being Jewish. But in every store and restaurant I go into I hear them playing those darn Christmas carols. I sure hope I never become so joyful about ANYTHING as the Christian community tries to be over Christmas.
And the Christmas stuff is everywhere. Yesterday I was at a local sushi bar. The patrons were my wife and me and a Japanese foursome, probably Shintoist. And the place was playing Christmas carols. Why? There were probably no Christmas fans there at all.
And by Christmas day I will be totally sick of "Silent Night." The melody is little more than the same four notes being played over and over with minor variations. I can well believe it was written, as the legend says, in one night. But it is played with the tiring manic repetition of a four-year-old singing the alphabet song over and over in the mistaken belief that all adults love to hear it.
The only good Christmas carols are the Olde English ones, as far as I am concerned. Some of those have very nice melodies. I like "Green Sleeves" since for one thing it is not a Christmas carol at all; it has only been adapted to be one. The other nice carol is "The Holly and the Ivy." It is only a Christmas carol but it is such a nice piece of music. And when I mention it to Christians most have never even heard of it. Rare is the year that I hear it played at all. That may be the secret of why it still is welcome- -it is not overplayed. I think in the past Jews have gotten so sick of some Christmas music that they have written their own just so there will be something new to hear. How else can you explain why a Jew like Irving Berlin was dreaming of a white Christmas? It was featured in WHITE CHRISTMAS directed by a Jewish Michael Curtiz and featuring a Jewish Danny Kaye. I think Danny Kaye did his own Christmas album. A Jewish Mel Torme wrote instead about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Actually there is a lot of Christmas music written by Jews. But my real subject was movies.
This is the time of year when the airwaves are filled with Christmas movies, just like the air is filled with Christmas carols. Remember the kid singing the alphabet song? The same thing goes for retellings of Dickens's CHRISTMAS CAROL. From situation comedies to movies that story has been done so many times it hangs limp. I wish that people would make the darn thing right once and stick with it. I have no objection to the 1951 film SCROOGE with Alistair Sim in the title role. It also is called A CHRISTMAS CAROL, of course, because people would not remember the real title. And it was a big improvement over the Reginald Owen version of the same story. But we have that film with the great performance by Sim. Let's not make any more versions of the story until somebody can really top it. I have seen so many adaptations that are just pale shadows (no pun intended). A few like the recent Patrick Stewart may be as decent, but let nobody redo the story until they know that they can top the Sim version.
The same goes for stagings of THE NUTCRACKER except I cannot pick even one good version. Frankly I am a little nauseated by Sugar Plum Fairies. I picture E. T. A. Hoffman and Charles Dickens consoling each other in the afterlife. And each should be played only once a season. What should be done with the extra airtime? You could do a lot worse than replaying AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS. It is a very nice short opera by Gian Carlo Menotti. Amahl is a lame boy whose mother becomes host for three kings. One of the networks played it once a season when I was growing up. Yes, it is not my religion, but as I have said I am willing to make exceptions for good music. After all, I also listen to Wagner and the Ring.
What else would go in my Jew's Guide to Christmas films? Well, I quite enjoyed MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Once or twice maybe. That is enough. I think the fact that it is played every season is less a tribute to its popularity and more to the lack of good Christmas programmng. How many times can you watch a grinch? MIRACLE did not need one remake and I have seen at least two. The same goes for IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which makes so much more convincing a case that it is a pretty awful life. These films are good a few times but for me they have limited wear. And they have been overused.
Quickly joining the same overuse category is A CHRISTMAS STORY. This is Jean Shepherd's semi-autobiographical comedy about his youth and Christmas time. Frequently it is very funny. I think I heard that one of the Turner stations is going to play it twelve times in 24 hours some time this Christmas season. That will probably wear it out. I wonder how long it will be before someone remakes it.
My current Christmas classic is Tim Burton's THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. So many Christmas films try to be charming and from my point of view Burton's film is the only one that ever made it. There is so much going on in every corner of the screen in this film that it is always fresh.
Believe it or not I really do try to schedule to watch a Christmas movie every 25th of December. And I do keep films for this very purpose. The last few years it has been the Burton film. This year I think I will do AMAHL. [-mrl]
LIBERTY HEIGHTS (a film review by Mark R. Leeper):
Capsule: Barry Levinson's fourth Baltimore film again examines his neighborhood as he remembers it, but now he looks at class, race, and religious tensions. His conclusion, however, seems to be that none of these tensions really amounted to much. He finds everybody being basically of good will even if they can be a bit confused at times. This is a good-hearted film with three strong story lines and a textured recreation of the atmosphere of the 1950s youth. Rating: 7 (0 to 10), +2 (-4 to +4)
As Barry Levinson looks at the Baltimore of his youth, in each successive film things get more serious. In DINER there was a small group of guys who were friends. In TIN MEN we see that there were also the more serious types who had to earn a living. AVALON told us that these people we are talking about are immigrant Jews who have to struggle to make the American thing work for them. In LIBERTY HEIGHTS we see that the Jews have to interface with other classes, other races, and other religions. There are definite tensions in this film as the diverse groups come in contact with each other, but Levinson is not as militant as a Spike Lee would be. His approach is more that of a peacemaker who sees no villains in the tensions. His world is populated with diverse groups who feel uneasy about each other only pending getting to know each other better.
The story follows the Kurtzman brothers, Van (played by Adrien Brody) and Ben (Ben Foster). They are growing up in the area of Forrest Park and Liberty Heights in Baltimore. Their neighborhood is so overwhelmingly Jewish that growing up Ben had just assumed a Chinese pupil in his grade school was also Jewish. Levinson, who wrote as well as directed, makes some humorous comments about how Jewish and non-Jewish households are different. Ben is amazed at how the Christians seem hung up on the color white, even to the point of eating their bread raw. In 1954 Van is in college and Ben in high school, but they remain somewhat provincial. At home they learn there are Jews and "the other kind." They are getting to the point when they will have to deal with the other kind. Their father, Nate Kurtzman (Joe Mantegna), runs a failing burlesque house as a front for his illegal numbers racket. Yet in spite of being a criminal, he deals only in a victimless crime and is a man of honor.
Van, Ben, and friends are planning to crash a Halloween party put on by some upper class other kinds. Bens parents are shocked by his dressing up as Adolph Hitler. Ben is told that he will have to stay home. At the party Van sees a woman, Dubby (Carolyn Murphy), who looks to him like a vision in white and he is immediately smitten. But the presence of uninvited Jews at the party leads to a fight that the other kind boys are spoiling for.
Meanwhile, Ben is also getting interested in a girl of the other kind. But in this case it is another kind of other kind. He is intrigued by Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson) the one black girl in his class. He strikes up a secret friendship with her. He finds the black community has their own comedians as well as their own music, but he quickly develops a taste for both. A third though less well-developed line of plot follows their fathers financial problems when the numbers racket proves to be less than profitable for him and when he finds himself owing a great deal of money to a small-time drug dealer, Little Melvin (Orlando Jones). Nice little personal touches characterize Nate. He dresses like a very successful man and always drives the latest model of Cadillac, even after one stroke of bad luck threatens to leave him nearly destitute. He practices his ballroom dancing in their semi- finished basement with his wife Ada (Bebe Neuwirth).
As usual, Levinson gets convincing acting from his cast. But somehow neither Mantegna nor Neuwirth seem very Jewish. And neither has the angular face that the Brody or Foster has, making the family a little less believable. It has been claimed that stage comics make very good actors and so it should not be surprising that Orlando Jones, formerly of MAD TV, has a great deal of stage presence. Perhaps Levinson should have increased the size of his role.
Levinson ties his series together with touches running though most of his series. Once again the main characters hang out in the Fells Point Diner. At the diner or elsewhere some of the best conversation (and much of the comic dialog) is around the table and over a meal. Levinson repeats the image of handsome women on horseback which he previously used in DINER.
Through the film Levinson sustains the 1950s feel though he overuses the device of wall-to-wall 1950s music. Chris Doyle's camerawork could have done the job by itself without so artificial a device. Also there are a few anachronisms notable. There is a reference to watching Perry Mason which would not debut until 1957. It also looks like Hitchcock's 1951 STRANGERS ON A TRAIN is being broadcast to television on in 1954, which seems highly unlikely.
LIBERTY HEIGHTS was for me not quite the film that AVALON was. Some people are a little too unrealistically nice in this film. There is nothing in this film that matches the scope of that one or the tender relationship between the Aiden Quinn character and his son in AVALON. I would give it a 7 on the 0 to 10 scale and a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale. [-mrl]
Quote of the Week:
A man likes his wife to be just clever enough to comprehend his cleverness, and just stupid enough to admire it. -- Israel Zangwill