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Dumbo, Dreamland, and Dreams

I’ve been writing a lot about movies lately. But that’s kind of my thing. And I’m happy to get to Tim Burton again… haven’t done that since I wrote about Dark Shadows what feels like a hundred years ago.

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The Farriers and Dumbo

There’s lots to say about Dumbo, which I don’t have time to get into right now. But let’s just all agree that this one really needed to happen. The original Dumbo is just unpleasant to watch, has lots of plot and continuity problems (most of which probably could have been solved if Disney had had more time), and has overall aged terribly. The remake, while not perfect, fixes pretty much all of the original’s mistakes.

But to get to the point… I want to talk about how the movie handles dreams. Children’s movies focus on them a lot, and it’s tricky to do. Everybody’s going to hate how you handle it. But I think of the past few year’s crop, Dumbo does it best.

Let’s go back to Zootopia. In the first few minutes of the movie, Judy’s parents tell her to give up on her dreams and settle, like they did. The movie, rightly, portrays this as not great, although Judy doesn’t listen to them and is ultimately vindicated by her actions. But the movie still got flack for framing the “just settle” message unfavorably (looking at you, Cinemasins). Now speed ahead to Coco, which goes in the other direction. Family is more important than your individualistic dreams. You can make an argument for that, and do it well, but Coco… doesn’t. Even though Miguel eventually gets to enjoy music with his family, he still had to promise to give up music in order to live. And everybody seemed fine with that. It’s amazing that he loves Hector that much, but seriously, Imelda… that was a cruel thing to do! And it kind of messes with the overall theme of the movie.

How does this relate to Dumbo? Well, Milly wants to become a scientist like Marie Curie, but her dad, Holt, tells her she needs to do something practical to help in the circus (something immediate, and which does not require years of expensive education). And it’s a frequent point of conflict throughout the movie.

Enter Michael Keaton as the flamboyant, sinister V.A. Vandevere. He immediately sympathizes with Milly’s dream, assuring her that she can be anything, but the audience very quickly realizes he doesn’t mean it. As soon as there’s a problem, she’s no longer a wonder-in-the-works, and it’s “why are there children in my office?” It works thematically with the movie (also setting up Vandevere’s villainy a bit), and it’s also quite realistic. Who remembers being told “you can be anything” by authority figures who clearly didn’t believe it, or got upset with you when you said you wanted to be the wrong thing?

But Milly and Holt come to a compromise. Before Dreamland burns down, father and daughter have a quiet moment in the Worlds Fair type exhibit, where he finally acknowledges that she might be able to discover things like she wants. And in the end, she does something practical for the circus, but is still satisfying her interests in science and new technology… running the circus’ nickelodeon. It’s helping with the need for new acts in the short term, but Milly is still young enough that education might still be in her future. Especially since the circus now has a permanent residence.

The movie doesn’t say don’t dream. It doesn’t say your dreams will always come true. But it shows a practical middle-ground, work and compromise, and keeps a door open for improvement.

In a way, Vandevere is right. Nothing is impossible… but you should still listen to the electricians when they say don’t throw that switch.

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Silence

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My husband created the tradition for himself of watching Martin Scorsese’s Silence every Good Friday.

I commend him for that. My Good Friday tradition, aside from church, is putting on the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Our traditions each involve a controversial piece of media, and that’s where the similarities end. But it is his choice I want to discuss today.

Two things make Silence a topic of controversy. The first is that Martin Scorsese directed The Last Temptation of Christ. And to that, I say so what. It has literally nothing to do with Portuguese Catholic priests in 17th century Japan.

The second topic is the ultimate outcome of the movie. The two surviving Portuguese priests apostatize (or renounce their faith) when their congregations are tortured in such a way that they remain alive. The old Japanese Inquisitor even says that when they first went after the Portuguese missionaries, they went about it the wrong way by killing the priests and brothers. Keeping them alive was the way to do it.

Critics and audiences fell all over themselves to decry the two padres. Which is really unfair. Nobody knows what they would do in the situation faced by the movie’s priests. People will say anything under torture, and even if they don’t break when it’s their own pain, being forced to watch someone they care about go through it is another matter altogether.

Everyone likes to think that when confronted by a doddering, bloodthirsty Inquisitor, they won’t break. But that’s probably armchair hubris. And armchair hubris is something a lot of American Christians have in excess.

Christianity in the United States is near the top of the social food chain. Depending on where you live, you might experience some form of prejudice for what you practice (being a Lutheran in the heart of the Bible Belt wasn’t easy), but you still enjoy the privileges it entails. And, at some level, people are bored by that. Or they feel inadequate, after hearing about early persecution, and they don’t like to see other religions (or the lack of religion) get rights, too. That’s why you have people who are falling all over themselves to be martyrs, claiming that Christianity is under attack (it isn’t), and throwing themselves at easy, pointless fights, like the color of a coffee cup. Or by watching PureFlix’s endless stream of schlock.

Wanting to be a martyr is not a good thing. And that problem is a prominent theme of Silence. Andrew Lincoln’s character, Rodrigues, wants this very much, and that arrogance and foolhardiness are a large part of why he goes to Japan in the first place. Which makes his mission rather flawed from the start.

And those flaws are what make Silence a genuinely good movie about faith. It’s hard to watch, and not just because the torture scenes are gruesome. If you can watch Casino, you can watch Silence, just based on the amount of blood spilled. Silence is uncomfortable for the audience because it offers no easy answers. The priests are flawed individuals, with arrogance and tempers. The Japanese characters aren’t written off as one-note sheep or monsters. And the movie addresses idolatry, both at the hands of the persecutors and the movie’s Christians, as they both try to flush out and hide from each other. But that’s another topic.

Faith is complicated, messy, and doesn’t come with easy questions or easy answers. It’s not always safe, and it needs a certain amount of flexibility.

And that’s something good to contemplate. When things are easy, and when they’re difficult. We need more movies to illustrate that.

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The Soul of The Black Cat

I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with the 1934 movie The Black Cat. I absolutely love the movie… especially when I’m not in a great place mentally. Namely high school, and working in a call center.

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The Black Cat is a complicated movie. There’s a lot to like (the visuals, the politics, the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced)… and plenty to dislike (the thin plot, thin characterizations, and the fact that it was Universal’s last hurrah before the Hays Code was strictly enforced).

I’ve always been drawn to it. My introduction came in the form of a still of the chess scene in a book about Universal. The striking visuals definitely got my attention, and I was further intrigued by the fact that this was the only Universal horror film that I wasn’t allowed to watch when I first asked to. After several years of begging, my dad gave in and let me borrow the VHS tape from my otherwise useless 11th grade English teacher.

For those unfamiliar with the movie… the plot is essentially thus. A ticketing snafu puts Dr. Vitus Verdegast (Bela Lugosi), recently late of a Soviet concentration camp in the same train compartment as two dumb American tourists, Mr. and Mrs. Allison. They wind up on the same bus, too. While the driver describes a massacre which took place in that area during the Great War, the bus goes off the road; the driver dies, and Mrs. Allison is injured. Verdegast, his servant, and the Allisons then seek shelter in the home of Verdegasts’s old friend, Engineer Poelzig, who commanded the Austro-Hungarian side of the battle described by the late driver. Then the real horror starts, because Poelzig was a traitor, who now runs a cult, and Verdegast is out for revenge.

Besides visuals, where the movie really excels is its monologues. Karloff and Lugosi both get good ones. So does the bus driver, although his casual description of the battle of Fort Marmorus is heard while the camera focuses on Lugosi’s face, looking haggard and sad, as his character remembers the horrors of World War I. Poelzig and Werdegast both speak at length about the damage done to their souls by the war. “Are we any the less victims of the War than those whose bodies were torn asunder?” Poelzig asks (a genuinely good question from an icon of evil). And Verdegast mentions several times that Kurgaal, the concentration camp where he has spent the last 15 years, is “where the soul is killed, slowly.” Every word carries the weight of desperation felt by the characters. It is the same desperation seen on the actors’ faces, and not only that of the main characters, but of the nameless cultists seen at the film’s climax.

And this desperation, is, I think, part of where the movie draws me in. Both now and when I was in high school, I was subjected to daily insults, which I just had to smile and take. In high school, it was principal and teachers, constantly berating the student body, telling us we were worthless, spoiled, and that we would never succeed in life. Now, it’s a good work day if a customer doesn’t call me a cunt. It’s a far cry from the massacre of Fort Marmorus, and the forced labor of Kurgaal. But it is soul killing. And, in a way, in these ghoulish characters, I find people who get it. They get it, but they are exaggerated enough for watching the movie to be cathartic.

And an object lesson in what not to do when feeling desperate. I might as well include that.

This complicated, visually gorgeous, thinly plotted movie remains controversial among horror fans. But, even if it wasn’t as important to me personally, I think Universal’s canon, would be much poorer without it. And I could probably do worse in terms of an unhealthy favorite.

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Opening Up Christopher Robin

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Last year, a little against my better judgement, I went to see Christopher Robin at the local art cinema. I was pleasantly surprised.

Recently I showed it to my husband, and I was pleasantly surprised again. Not only did the movie miss the pitfalls I expected from the trailer, there were a few levels I didn’t notice at first.

A lot of the movie’s conflict stems from Christopher’s inability to find a good work-life balance, which is something his wife seems to have found. When we are introduced to Evelyn, we see she’s an architect, and she continues working after he is sent off to World War II. And when Christopher comes home late again after being told to lay off people in his department, Evelyn is drafting at a desk at home. But we also see her dancing with Madeleine, so she clearly has made time to have fun and be with her daughter. It’s unusual for any movie to really show a working mother whose job isn’t part of the movie’s conflict or make her a boring nag… let alone in a movie that takes place in the 1950’s.

Speaking of the 1950’s, on second viewing, I noticed that the employees Christopher Robin is told to lay off are vulnerable. Some are black. A decent number are female, and a few are elderly. Or combinations of the three. They’ll all have a difficult time finding work again if let go. It makes Christopher Robin’s wish to find a solution more noble, and it shows that he is still a good person at heart, just a little lost.

On the movie’s TV Tropes pages, someone suggested the movie suffers from a “Broken Aesop” meaning that the message is actually harmful, in that Christopher is being a good man and boss by putting in the extra hours to save his coworkers. But that’s an oversimplification, like his assignment. The movie never states that work is bad… just that Christopher needs a realignment. He was abruptly taken out of childhood by school and his father’s death, and the final nail in the coffin was serving in the war. You can see when he gets back that he doesn’t really know how to interact with people, including his wife and daughter, so he isolates himself. The fact that there’s only Madeleine probably further illustrates the post-war distance between him and Evelyn. He brushes off the friendly neighbor. And he even tells Winnie the Pooh that he tries not to think of his colleagues as friends.

And his assignment is fundamentally flawed. Just laying people off wouldn’t solve the company’s problem. Neither would using different materials. They would help in the short term, but a longer term look at the problem and why it is a problem was needed. His solution is a little Hollywood magicky, but sometimes great ideas to happen just by seeing an upside-down grid.

Another layer of the “doing nothing leads to the best something” theme comes up here. Christopher was well on his way to burnout, and his solution, while it sounds simple, is more than just “go on holiday.” Christopher’s weekend of nothing in the Hundred Acre Wood is the first time he spent meaningful time with others, talking about something not work-related, and playing. And that’s good for the brain. It shows how necessary socialization is for healing and growth. Christopher Robin always needed his friends, and they help him to a better relationship with his family.

A lot more complex than one would expect from a bear of very little brain, hmm?

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Writing About Writing: Part 2 of….

If I write about writing (after another prolonged absence), one thing I’ll have to mention at some point is the character. And my relationship to the characters I create.

You’ve probably seen the t-shirt in old Christmas catalogs that reads “be careful or you’ll end up in my novel,” which is an absolutely true statement. My favorite example of this is the Agnes Moorhead character in the radio drama, “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Writer Lucille Fletcher based the obnoxious, doomed protagonist on an extremely rude woman she encountered at a store. “Lady, I’m going to kill you,” Ms. Fletcher thought, and, on the airwaves, she did.

When one of my former colleagues proved to be an obnoxious tattletale, my immediate thought was, “that’s it, buster. You’re the killer in my next murder mystery!” (It’s a mystery that’s still being written, given I have a killer, victim, a detective, and not a lot else).

But it’s not all like that. Sometimes I come across a person in real life, either by meeting them, or by reading about them (or something by them) and think, hmm… this person would be good in a sci-fi setting, or a mystery, or something, and take a few traits, while adding enough of my own to make them original. One example, I met an old man with a name right out of a Dick Tracy comic, who used to be stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in the 1950s (Area 51 anyone?). Sometime I’ll have a comic alien story featuring a character loosely based on that gentleman.

And then there are those who are completely original. And there’s no rhyme or reason to how I create original characters, honestly. Sometimes they just pop up almost fully formed. Sometimes they require a lot of workshopping. For me, the best example of that was a character, who goes by Card or Cardinal because of his love of red. When I first started writing scenes with him, they were fun, but something always felt off. Then I realized, over time, that Card was too much. He was too good at everything. And too young for those skills to make sense. So I put him into his seventies, and now the knowledge and skill fit better, and because he was now elderly, I had to slow him down a bit, make a few other changes (not only slow him down physically, but emotionally as well), and suddenly, he worked.

And besides planning and working out a character’s details and quirks, there are occasionally surprises. Some of my friends who are writers argue with me on this one (as the author, I shouldn’t be surprised by what my characters do), but that’s occasionally part of my creative process. And it makes sense to me.

When I was in college, one of my professors told me about the time he met Toni Morrison. He told her how excited he was to shake the hand that wrote The Bluest Eye, and was shocked when Morrison told him she didn’t particularly like that work of hers.

“Books are children,” she said. “They have their own lives.”

And if that’s true for books, I would argue it’s also true for characters. In some cases, it’s literally true that they’re children after all.

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Ebeneezer Scrooge: A Favorite Unwanted Creature

In a few days it will be Christmas again (it’s practically here, as the Grinch would say), so I wanted to do another seasonal
post. And Ebeneezer Scrooge popped into my head.

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1999

I love A Christmas Carol, and I’ve seen a fair number of the movies made of it. Originally my plan was to write about my favorite Scrooge, but I couldn’t pick. The closest I came was to narrow it down to Alistair Sim and Patrick Stewart. Very different, yes. I like Patrick Stewart’s energy, and the Sim version of A Christmas Carol spends a lot of time on how Scrooge became a miserable miser, so he’s covered a lot of ground by the end of the movie.

So I thought I’d go over some of my favorites, and what traits they highlighted in the character.

That means I’d start with old Scrooge McDuck himself. Mickey’s Christmas Carol was the first version of the story I was introduced to as a little kid. I recently rewatched it, packaged into a House of Mouse movie, and what stuck out to me was Scrooge’s vulnerability. When Goofy/Marley haunts him, Scrooge actually demonstrates some of the friendship he and Marley used to have, which you don’t usually see. He beeps Marley’s nose, to the ghost’s chagrin, and warns him not to fall down the stairs. When Marley falls (back into hell?), Scrooge looks genuinely sad, something notable that early in the story.

Continuing with the chronological theme, I’ll highlight Michael Caine, who was the second Scrooge I was acquainted with in The Muppet Christmas Carol. Despite what Miss Piggy claims, his is a very elegant, dignified Scrooge (no mean feat with all those puppets!). Even with Gonzo and Rizzo weighing him down as the Ghost of Christmas Past flies him through London, the audience doesn’t laugh as much at Scrooge’s indignity as it does the plight of the rat. He doesn’t lose his temper or really get rattled, so it’s all the more jarring the times he’s moved to tears. But the rest of his performance doesn’t feel remote or deadpan. And that takes great performance chops to pull off. Especially since it can’t be easy to act with the Muppets.

Third is Albert Finney, who is both the funniest and the most unpleasant Scrooge. That the movie is a musical is a major part of the humor… who can forget the number where Scrooge is so thrilled at a crowd of people thanking him that he fails to notice that they’re dancing on his grave? But he opens the movie flagrantly committing extortion, and otherwise victimizing the business owners in debt to him. That’s the only movie (that I’ve watched all the way through, I didn’t finish Scrooged) where the miser does something actually illegal. He’s unethical as all hell, but it’s interesting that in this adaptation, he’s a criminal.

I have to give George C. Scott some credit, even though I don’t particularly care for his version of A Christmas Carol. Nothing wrong with him. He’s a fine Scrooge, especially when you realize he was born in rural Virginia (and most Americans can’t do a good British accent). The rest of the movie just doesn’t grab me. What I do like about Scott’s performance, is that his Scrooge is one of the more pompous, whose path to humility, you can really see. He positively wilts under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s tongue-lashing, and never shows a shred of arrogance after that, even though he had been preening a moment before in response to Bob Cratchit toasting him. It’s the road to Damascus.

1951

Now Alistair Sim. He’s probably the most realistic Scrooge in the bunch. Or at least the most human. And that’s because this adaptation lets us see Scrooge’s fall from grace in much greater detail. He’s tempted away from the benevolent Fezziwig by Mr. Jorkin (dropped in from David Copperfield), an embezzler. His sister Fan dies giving birth to Fred, which is implied in the books, but here, blaming his nephew for the loss of his sister, the strained relationship makes more sense. So we feel we really got to know and understand this Scrooge in a way the movies, and even the book, usually don’t allow. So we’re all that much happier when he reforms.

Finally… Patrick Stewart. His Scrooge has a lot of energy, and enthusiasm, no matter what the scene is. You can tell he loves arguing with the stockbrokers, in the opening, and he vigorously defends Fezziwig when the Ghost of Christmas Past ironically asks if his old employer deserves so much praise. This energy makes him more sinister during the earlier parts of the movie, and funnier and more joyful when he’s reformed. It’s terrifying when Scrooge scares the carolers away from his business doorstep. It’s hilarious when he gets into a snowball fight with them on Christmas day and heartwarming when he dances with Fred’s wife. This also is probably pretty faithful to the book, because Scrooge is probably not that old. When Marley died, Belle, Scrooge’s old love, had a new baby, and they’re typically shown as being of similar age. So, while Scrooge probably doesn’t look good due to his miserly habits, he’s not a wizened old man yet.

I know there are a lot of adaptations out there I haven’t covered (like the animated versions), due to length, preference, or ignorance (beware!) so I’d be very interested to hear what you think. Sound off in the comments about your favorites, and why.

And this Christmas, as my family often does, why not raise a glass to Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast, and everyone’s favorite unwanted creature.

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Nativity Scenes

It’s the Christmas season again, and I wanted to talk about something a little different… something that has a lot of fond memories for me, but also has a lot of memories that topple into comedy or near disaster. I’m talking about my Fontanini Nativity scene. Every year, around the first Sunday of Advent, getting it out and putting it up (often before the tree) is one of my favorite parts of the holiday.

At my parents’ house, a few years ago

My maternal grandmother started buying the pieces when I was first born. Now we have a pretty extensive collection, although she stopped buying the pieces around the time I was in eighth grade or so.

All of the memories I want to describe happened before that, though.

The first one came from when I was maybe four or five. My little brother was being potty-trained, and went through a phase where he would try to flush anything he found that was brown down the toilet. The figures of the Magi were mostly brown…. But, as it turns out, Fontanini makes products that stand up quite well to being soaked in Bleach. No lasting harm done.

My second memory happened when I was about eight. My mother had just started to let me make my own tea, and my grandmother had just sent “Bethlehem birds,” a new piece for the Nativity scene. And my brother, now in kindergarten, wanted to pretend that he was one of the birds. So, he and my mother marched around the living room and dining room squawking like barnyard fowl, and just as I was about to leave the kitchen with a very full mug of hot tea, they rounded the corner into the kitchen.

Finally, there was the following year. It was our first Christmas with our dog. She was a year old, and one evening, got wound up. She grabbed the towel we kept under the Nativity scene in her teeth and started to pull on it. I yelled for her to stop, and she did, so then I took the baby Jesus out of the manger and showed it to her. 

“This is the baby Jesus,” I told her. “Don’t bother the baby.”

She licked him and padded off to her crate in the dining room. She never disturbed the nativity scene again.

I have other memories of course, but those three stick out. Maybe because of the childhood element, or maybe because they’re something I can laugh at now (even though for 2 out of 3, I didn’t at the time). Either way, I’m glad I have them, and that I still have the scene now and can make more memories with it.

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