Thursday, December 31, 2015

Travels with Cadfael: A New Year's Tale of Two Feasts, Rome and New York



Nothing exotic this New Years, but fond memories of a New Year's Eve in Trastevere, Rome, with my Benedictine monk friend Cadfael—whom I had met while I was studying chant in Solemes, which lead to a series of terrific travel adventures—while my then recent ex walked down the aisle in New York.

When you experience it, it’s not a cliche:

It was the best of times and the worst of times. We were in an epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity, in a season of Darkness and a season of Light. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.

There was to be a feast in Rome that I would attend, and one in New York that I would not. And so we will come to the end of the tale of the Talented Mr. Ripley and me (with no snide remarks from you, Steed), when he walked down the aisle with his ready-made family in my own parish in New York while I was in Rome getting some comfort from the monks.

Cadfael and I had spent Christmas in Galway,  and then landed in a Rome of grey skies and drizzle for New Year's. The weather fit my mood. We buzzed around town a bit on the Vespa to say goodbye and good riddance to the old year.

The plan was to have a late New Year’s Eve dinner in a small neighborhood place in Trastevere, with 2 of Cadfael’s English monk friends, Rupert and Lambert. For me it would be like having a monk shield against the sad thoughts of a disappointing year.

And what a shield it was.  Rupert is a dazzling dissipate. He is a living cross between Lord Sebastian Flyte and C.S.Lewis. A compact man, fortyish, his boyish good looks starting to fade, he is a compelling presence of sweetness and darkness. Lambert is a little younger and on the surface, very uncomplicated; he’s 6 feet 2 of warm openness.

The trio called for me at my hotel, the Villa San Pio on the Aventine, and we walked through the small, winding alleys of that most charming of Roman neighborhoods. We were led to a great table in the back of the taverna, where I sat against the wall looking into the room through the ring of Benedictines. In the deep haze of cigarette smoke the large Italian families were in full, noisy animation. I felt safe.

We got bottles of wine, and then more bottles. The monks reminded me of the sailors from my schooner sailing days. When they are on duty, it’s all business, but when they are off duty, they know how to relax, and drink. Our conversation danced to all corners—-American pop culture, Leeds, childhood stories, life in Italy. We laughed and laughed and at midnight sang a sotto voce “Auld lang syne” to each other. For a table of damaged people in a foreign city, we were doing very well as 2003 became 2004.

January 1 is the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. I was in the church of Collegio Sant'Anselmo, where Cadfael was studying. It is a surprisingly modern church, all white inside. The sun was pouring in as I sat in the dazzling light tightly wrapped in my New York black coat, watching my dinner companions in their community, serving at Mass. They seemed familiar and unknowable at the same time.

After Mass, Cadfael said that the Abbott had granted permission for me to join Cad at the holiday meal. Visitors are only allowed in the refectory on special occasions, and it is an honor to be invited to eat with the community. We walked into the huge dining room with long tables set around its perimeter with almost 100 place settings for 100 men, and me. I was seated next to Cad, thank goodness, while a special holiday meal was served: classic antipasto, saltimbocca, potatoes au gratin, fresh bread, haricourt verts, spumanti for dessert, all with the correct wines from proseccio to champagne and a fabulous espresso.

Men eat faster than I do, and monks eat very fast. I tried to keep up but plates were flying around me left and right. The monastery is built on hierarchy: junior brothers serve, and everyone is seated by seniority. Usually a reader reads a text during a silent meal, but not on holidays.

After the meal, the assembly broke up pretty quickly. Cad and I went over to the Abbott, who is Spanish, so I could say thank you. We started to leave, when Rupert and Lambert came up behind us.

“Happy New Year”

Rupert sparked a conversation about Praxiteles, one of the greatest of the Attic sculptors, only for Lambert to jump in with the "Phidias was greater" argument. Did I mention they are both serious classicists. Their knowledge was startling, and they were showing off, but since it had the spirit of Monty Python about it, it was a riot instead of insufferable. We lingered in the room for two hours of nonstop cigarettes, chatter, and laughter. I wish I had captured it all on video--I would love to watch it again.

Finally we needed to go. Rupert walked me out, crooning an early Bing Crosby tune in his madly eccentric way:

Oh, Please.
Lend your little ear to my pleas
Lend a ray of cheer to my pleas
Tell me that you love me too.


Right words, wrong man.

Another wrong man was just starting his feast, his wedding reception in New York. For a brief minute I wondered what could be going through The Talented Mr. Ripley's mind as he surveyed the buffet in the parish basement. That was not the end of it. I took a short break from my choir of 15 years—did I mention he was the choir director—and when I then wanted to return, he said he needed to regroup, and he couldn't do that if I were there.  So I was barred from my own choir, and I had no monks in New York to help assuage the hurt.

As for Cad and me, we had one more trip ahead of us, before things would change forever.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 Where Blogs Are Alive & Well: Vagabond Scholar's Yearly Round-up in Honor of Jon Swift


 From the Vagabond Scholar blog:

"Welcome to a tradition started by the late Jon Swift/Al Weisel, who left behind some excellent satire, but was also a nice guy and a strong supporter of small blogs. As Lance Mannion put it in 2010:

One of his projects was a year-end Blogger Round Up. Al/Jon asked bloggers far and wide, famous and in- and not at all, to submit a link to their favorite post of the past twelve months and then he sorted, compiled, blurbed, hyperlinked and posted them on his popular blog. "

Satirist blogger Jon Swift/Al Weisel sadly died in 2009 of an aneurysm. Batocchio, who writes the Vagabond Scholar blog, picked-up the round-up mantle in honor of Jon Swift.

I was on the edges of Jon Swift's blog circle, via Tom Watson, and so I ended up in his round-up. It continues to be a wonderful collection of big/famous blogs and smaller/not famous blogs, all nestled together by Batocchio.  I submitted my post about stumbling upon the BBC Desert Island Disc website & Yoko Ono's song selections. One of which her mother sang to her, and my mother sang to me: The Songs Our Mothers Sang to Us.

What is most wonderful about the round-up is the clear evidence that "blogs are dead"—which has been hailed since shortly after they began  and heightend as Twitter and Instagram entered the scene—simply isn't true.

Happy Reading, you readers' readers, get thee to the Vagabond Scholar.


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Bill Murray Channels Bing & Frank for a Very Merry Christmas



There's no doubt: My Christmas spirits have been sagging. There is so very much pain in the world, it has taken my blogging voice away.

And then. I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas on Netfilx, and it woke me up, just in time. It spoke to my DNA, and with that connection I realized that I can't help the world at large. But I can be "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knows or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world." Thanks Bill.

A Very Murray Christmas is a touchstone to my childhood. I know what he's doing with his 57 minutes, and it is not self-indulgent, the word I saw most often in reviews.

In the Beginning, There was Bing Crosby
Yes, I am a Bill Murray fan, from Caddyshack on. And I was weened on 1940s movies. When Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn was on WOR, Channel 9 in the 1970s, my father--a lifelong Crosby fan--said, "this is important you need to watch this." And I found it stunning. The towering talents of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, set against the glamour of NY nightclub life with those glittering white Christmas trees, was intoxicating. In high school I made my friends sit and watch it with me, and they were glad. High schoolers. In the 1970s.

Fast forward some decades: When I finally watched A Very Murray Christmas, I was immediately connected back to my Crosby heritage, which of course included every Crosby Christmas special from the early 1970s until his death, and his famous Christmas songs. No stretch there, since Murray used the most famous Crosby album graphic directly. (Although I think Bill looks oddly like Derek Jacobi here.)





But the Crosby specials aren't the most direct connection for me: instead it was to a special episode of Frank Sinatra's short-lived The Frank Sinatra Show, for Bulova, called Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank. The premise is that Bing Crosby is dropping by Frank's very chic apartment with some gifts.  The banter is scripted. Sometimes awkward (sound familiar?) while sometimes it's cool:

Crosby "Hey this must be in your key."
Sinatra:  "Well it's my ballpark."

They drink from a Wassail bowl in a visual quote of "Did You Evah" from The Philadelphia Story, and become inebriated enough to see Ye Old Merrie England outside the high-rise door. And they both enter this alternate universe (sound familiar?) in Dickensian costume to join in with the carolers. (To see Crosby wear a Dickensian top hat atilt is alone worth the price of admission.)

1957 friends get together; 1957 friends enter alternate reality.

2015 friends get together; 2015 friends enter an alternate reality.

Frank and Bing then return to 1957, and Bing thinks he needs to leave because Sinatra's table is set for an intimate dinner for two, which then Frank says is for him! (Not a date!).

This allows the duo to continue to sing Christmas songs solo and in duet, until Frank graciously gives the Bing the closing spotlight for "White Christmas." It's a lovely reminder that Sinatra idolized Crosby, even though he was to surpass him in cultural relevance. For sensibilities that love that classic singing, the 27-minute special is sublime.

Bill and His Friends
Many critics found Murray's special lazy at best, self-indulgent at the least. But the vision of combining famous friends playing themselves with others playing characters is neither. It's creative.

The premise of the live show is right out of the Mitch Glazer/Murray collaboration of Scrooge. It continues Murray's homage to the early days of live TV, something that Clooney is also interested in, bringing the 1962 film Fail-Safe live to CBS in 2000, as well as being in the live ER episode "Ambush" in 1997. There is no sense of parody here for Murray, it is a tip of the hat to TV's past.

Bill Murray, both the actor/singer and the "character," would not have the same kind of 1950s polish that we see in Crosby and Sinatra. That's not who he is. But I think he brought his own A game: his echoes of Nick Ocean lounge singer & Lost in Translation's Bob Harris, with some redeemed Frank Cross. So the tone is mixed but always genuine. That is part of its charm.

Murray and Glazer & Sofia Coppola capture the ersatz exuberance of "the Christmas special of Christmases past" beautifully with the chic sparkling white set and snow and cute chorus girl costumes. George "you shook Sinatra's hand" Clooney is the perfect friend to be in the dream sequence. He also has enormous respect and nostalgia for old Hollywood and early TV, which can be easy to mock.

Quick Music Nit-Pick Interlude
Paul Shaffer, musician extraordinaire, allowed two goofs on his watch:

•Jenny Lewis starts "Good King Wenceslas" and commits the age-old error of reading the 3 syllables of his name as though he "last" did something.

It's "Good King Wen-ce-las looked out."  NOT "Good King Wence-las LAST looked out."

•Having Miley Cyrus sing 2 verses of "Silent Night" and then sing the first verse AGAIN instead of the exquisite third verse is a gaff. She did a beautiful job.

•One funny thing in 1957. They altered the words of the 2nd verse of "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" so that they did not have to say "a Virgin's womb."

CHRIST, by highest Heav'n ador'd; CHRIST, the Everlasting Lord; Late in Time behold him come; Offspring of a Virgin's Womb the favored one.

Big Finish: We Wish You a Merry Christmas



Bill wakes up from his glorious blackout to find himself on the couch, in his robe, with faithful Paul at the piano and Dimitri Dimitrov on call. He sings "We wish you a Merry Christmas" in his alcohol-wrecked voice. Then looks out the window to wish the greeting to all New York in a poignant, sad, grey shot.

Bing and Frank end their tableau sitting down to a festive dinner together as the camera pans back to a window with snow a-swirling, a shot right out of Holiday Inn.

Big difference between 1957 and 2015. In part, perhaps, because men, and I do mean the male gender, are now free to show their fears in a way Crosby and Sinatra would never have dreamed of.  And 2015 does not have the post-war optimism that the 1950s saw.

But what is most important is that we can still enjoy Bing & Frank's talent, and if you're in more of a Joni Mitchell "River" mood, pop into Bill's Very Murray Christmas. So many riches. God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Master Celtic Interpretation of "A Christmas Carol"



Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol was published as a novella on December 19, 1843, in London. For me, the 1951 Alistair Sim film version--released as Scrooge in the UK--is one of the most perfect realizations of literature to film ever created. 


Wiki lists more than 100 adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, for theater, radio, opera, graphic novel, TV, and including at least 21 films, starting with a 1901 British silent. That number doesn’t include the parodies and homages, such as the numerous TV series that have a Christmas Carol episode (looking at you Bewitched and The Odd Couple). The AV Club has a good list. Everyone has their favorites: mine are Scrooged (yes, Bill Murray), and the Alastair Sim version, which tops the list for many generations of holiday viewers.

What is it that sets the Alastair Sim version produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst  apart from the rest?

Well, I’d say it’s because it is the perfect Celtic marriage: a Scottish actor and an Irish director. Seriously. The Celtic DNA knows how to deal with ghosts, tormented souls, and redemption like no other race, and they would have a particular affinity with the creative genius of their Anglo-Saxon cousin Dickens.

Ireland's Most Prolific Early Director
Brian Desmond Hurst was born in East Belfast in 1895 into a working-class family of iron workers. In 1914, he enlisted in the British Army and survived the slaughter at Gallipoli with the Royal Irish Rifles. He went to Hollywood in the late 1920s and it’s not surprising that he became friends with John Ford — some accounts said he was one of Ford’s assistants — and had a cameo alongside John Wayne in Hangman’s House (1928).

In 1933, he moved back to England, and the films he directed were seeped deeply in the Irish and English literary tradition: a version of John Millington Synge’s great play Riders to the Sea (1935), which he shot in Connemara with actors from the Abbey Theatre; Ourselves Alone (1936), a love story set against the Irish War of Independence (and the translation of Sinn Fein, a factoid I first learned from a Columbo episode!); and The Tenth Man (1936) based on the play by Somerset Maugham. In the 1940s, he directed several war films/re-creations, some would say propaganda, working with the Ministry of Information. One is A Letter from Ulster (1943), where "Hurst was able to persuade one Catholic and one Protestant soldier to write letters home, explaining their impressions of their stay." Another, Theirs Is the Glory (1946), was about the British forces in Operation Market Garden.

I don’t know how the job of directing and producing Scrooge, as it was released in Britain, fell to Hurst, but it was an inspired choice given his sensitivity to literature. And then his DNA kicked in.


An Ulster man grows up believing that the supernatural simply coexists with the natural world. Hurst in his own words: "I don’t remember very much about my mother because I was only 3½ when she died, but I remember running into the house one day and asking her for a biscuit. I was still dressed then as a little girl, because in Ulster we believed that the fairies only stole little boys, and didn’t want little girls." Sure, everyone knows that.

From Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight — where he wrote down "true tales" of ghosts and spirits and faeries as told to him by various people — to the Conor McPherson film The Eclipse, with Ciaran Hinds as a volunteer at a literary festival who is drawn to an English author who writes ghosts stories — Celtic culture simply abounds with the dead and the undead sharing all sorts of things. Hurst’s literary nature combined with his Irish sensibility helped create magic on screen. The film’s atmosphere is authentically creepy, treating the ghosts with respect, and then truly joyous, as we know the Irish can be.

Alastair as Ebenezer
The other part of the magic, of course, is in the person of Alastair Sim. He was born in Edinburgh in 1900 to a mother from the Inner Hebrides who only spoke Gaelic until she moved to the mainland in her teens. Need I say more about Sim’s understanding of the Celtic soul? Like Hurst, there wasn’t much in Sim’s earlier work that hinted at such a perfectly realized lead performance. He was the clichéd "character actor" in the 1930s, moving up to lead in B pictures in the '40s. After Scrooge, his fame was for portraying — in drag — the headmistress in two St. Trinian’s films.

Under Hurst’s direction, Sim gives the naturally nuanced performance of a lifetime. Every line reading sounds like extemporaneous, unscripted dialogue. Nothing is caricature, even the difficult "humbugs." His heart of stone at the beginning is perfectly cold and icy, with no hint of camp. His interview with Marley completely comfortable once he gets over the shock. Sim beautifully realizes every fiber of Ebenezer. The Dickensian-named Bosley Crowther, critic of The New York Times in the 1930s and '40s, summed it up like this:

In short, what we have in this rendition of Dickens' sometimes misunderstood Carol is an accurate comprehension of the agony of a shabby soul. And this is presented not only in the tortured aspects of Mr. Sim but in the phantasmagoric creation of a somber and chilly atmosphere."

It’s the final transformation, then, into the light, that I believe makes Sim’s good portrayal superlative.

Giddy for Us All
One of humanity’s deepest fears is that of missing out: missing out on love, on a career or a creative dream. It’s a harsh reality for everyone at some point. You accept the defeats small and large because you have to; as they say, "what can you do?" As Ebenezer slowly begins to see how mean he has become, he fears The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come — the Phantom — and his own death.

"How are you?" said one [man of business: very wealthy, and of great importance]
"How are you?" returned the other.
"Well!" said the first, "old Scratch has got his own at last, hey?"

And to underscore that Scrooge's soul is headed to Hell, Arthur Rackham's illustration of this exchange shows an enormous cloven-hoofed Satan looming behind the two businessmen, with his long fingers gesturing to Ebenezer. The Phantom then leads Scrooge to the cemetery and the great scene of Scrooge seeing his name on the tombstone.


"Spirit! he cried, tightly clutching his robe. "Hear me! I am not the man I was. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?"

"I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!"

In his agony he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reverse, he saw an alteration in the Phantom's hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bed-post.

When Scrooge wakes up back in his bed, he’s thrilled but doesn’t know what day it is, how long the spirits have taken. When he learns that he hasn’t missed Christmas he is elated, light as a feather. He hasn’t missed it!!! The joy at being given another chance is like no other. (And, if you believe that what you “haven’t missed out on” is the eternal salvation of your soul, the elation gets kicked up a whole other notch). Sim’s Christmas Day giddiness is one of the great gifts to cinema. (And George C. Scott's attempt at giddiness is the most leaden of the variations.) If Scrooge can become that happy, than surely there is hope — for everyone.


Hurst rounds out the film with a great soundtrack. Music. Another thing the Irish know something about.