Monday, December 29, 2008

I Am Curious Too

December 29, 2008
You won't find a stranger movie this year than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. After all, you only have a couple of days left.

Some years ago I read a little book of F. Scott Fitzgerald's called Stories from the Jazz Age, and all I remember about it is the title of the book--which coined a term often used to describe the 1920s--and a strange story about a man who was born old, literally, and aged backward for the rest of his life. A decidedly curious tale, I didn't particularly like it, but I never got the concept out of my mind. Here it has turned up, revamped into a luscious film and enhanced by plot additions, elegant art direction, costumes, authentically mystical New Orleans settings, and irresistibly attractive actors.

I met my 14-year-old grandson Elias at Port Authority yesterday with the idea in mind that we might catch a flick (actually anticipating seeing Valkyrie. He told me he wasn't interested in that one--his current prejudice is against the Scientologist bent of the leading man--and I couldn't persuade him to try Frost/Nixon or Doubt, so we settled on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and settled in for a long afternoon of escape.)

The New Orleans backdrop is appropriate for the mythical quality of the movie. Without giving you any more of the plot, I will say that the beauty of the the film is in its quiet seduction into a world where odd things happen and time moves backward as it advances. The picture above shows the protagonist at the moment he is in his prime and catches the lady when she is at the same place in time. We've seen him looking wizened and ancient when we know he is really an adolescent, and we've experienced the sensations of life running in reverse to the point where we accept the alternate reality and anticipate it. So romantic, the film caused me to wonder whether it could be classified as a chick flick, but with its complex story and inevitably unsettling ending, I decided not. It has much more range than that. It will appeal to a segment of the vast viewing audience, male and female, who are capable of suspending disbelief and entering a world of true mystery and beauty--in spite of the strangeness of that world.

One last note. Brad Pitt narrates with the perfect cadence of New Orleans. His accent has that trace of southern-U.S combined with the quirk of some port cities, especially New Orleans. You may wonder why he says "uh-athe" for earth, something like "wake" for work, and "chache" for church. It only tells us that he's spent enough time listening to people in New Orleans to know how they sound.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Best Christmas Greeting

December 27, 2008

Make no mistake about it--having grandchildren is like nothing else in the world. My 11-year-old grandson, Andy, wrote special messages to everybody in his family this year, thanking his mother for keeping a roof over his head, his feisty older brother for being there for him, and this to me, the grandmother who has great expectations and tons of love for him. I don't think I have to add anything to his message, except I hope you are all so lucky!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Armchair Adventures: Christmas Movies

December 23, 2008

I love some of the classic Christmas movies--the black and white antiques that remind us of simpler, more romantic times. I discovered a lost gem called Remember the Night, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray a few weeks ago on Turner Classic Movies. The more I watched, the more I was drawn into this situation of a hardboiled shoplifter-babe getting a ride home to Indiana for Christmas with the D.A. who will be prosecuting her when they return to New York. I'm delighted it will be shown again tomorrow night at 11:15 and at 6:15 on Christmas morning.

This is decidedly not usual fare. As I watched the sophisticated romantic comedy unfold, I was impressed by its gritty characters bandying back-and-forth their witty repartee. I said to myself, this dialogue is so good and the situations and characters so odd it could have been written by Preston Sturges. But then, never having heard of the little film, I realized there were lots of good writers working in Tinseltown in those years. Imagine my joy at looking it up on Google later and learning that it was indeed Sturges' work, the very piece that launched him as a pioneer filmmaker who insisted on directing his own scripts.

I won't give away any more of the movie's plot in hopes you can make time to catch it on the tube yourself, except to say it features Beulah Bondi in one the most sympathetic roles she ever played, and a touchingly young oddball Sterling Holloway as a delightful, dear dimwit. The plot has little twists and an unexpected ending, but it is vintage stuff that will warm your heart and make you glad it's Christmas.

Bondi is also present in the ubiquitous Christmas offering It's A Wonderful Life, playing Jimmy Stewart's mother in the saga that the critics seem to have just discovered is a dark look at American life as it dealt with money matters in the days surrounding the Great Depression. I love everything about this picture except the delivery of that beautiful last line by one of the least talented child actors Hollywood has ever produced. Her linereading always makes me want to erase the whole thing and start over, but all I can do is just pretend it's being said sincerely, with a real child's wonder, rather than the singsong phoniness coming from that irritating little girl.

I love the really old versions of A Christmas Carol, in black and white. For the first time this year I caught the 1938 version with Reginald Owen, and it's a beaut. I have seen Alistair Sym do the role, and he's a scarier, less dimensional Scrooge. Interesting that Hollywood seemed have found the perfect Bob Cratchit in the genial Gene Lockhart who played the role to perfection in both films. In the Owen version his daughter June, later to be best known as Lassie's "mother" in the television series, plays one of his children. There is a collection of Scrooges to choose from. Of course there is Scrooged, with Bill Murray, and a dancing and singing Albert Finney in an English spinoff that seemed more a knockoff of Oliver! with one fun song, "Thank You Very Much!" But for the song, that whole movie just seemed hokey to me. You might get the impression that I'm a purist, and maybe I am, but I did especially love Reginald Owen film. My eyes were never dry when there was any member of the Cratchit family in the scene, and when Scrooge insists to the ghost of Christmas present that his nephew is truly in love.

Everybody has a favorite heartwarmer or two for this time of year. The Miracle on 34th Street works every time, with the moppet-sized Natalie Wood who doesn't believe in him until she meets the real Santa Claus; and Meet Me in St. Louis has Judy Garland singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to Margaret O'Brien, for God's sake. The original The Bishop's Wife features some very beautiful people--Loretta Young as the wife in question, and Cary Grant as an extremely erudite and elegant angel--while the bishop is a kindly if benighted David Niven--all of whom are made better by their experience together at Christmas. There are lovely Christmas moments in both versions of Little Women, and we purists prefer the Katharine Hepburn one, even though we grew up watching the Technicolor version with June Allyson. The Man Who Came To Dinner will always have a place in my heart since I directed the play as my first outing with my own theatre company.

The Wizard of Oz is a lifetime favorite movie of mine, especially appropriate at Christmas although there is not a single reference to any holiday in it. It is a wacky tale about a little girl from Kansas who goes over the rainbow and meets a bunch of insane grownups who protect her from a wicked witch and her brigade of evil flying monkeys--surely I don't have to tell you this. Just rent it and get out the Kleenexes. There is no better time than Christmas to enjoy a good, happy cry and be glad you're alive.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas in Hoboken

December 19, 2008
That's the view out my window. We can see the back of the buildings across the courtyard as the whole of Hoboken fills with snow so thick it turns everything grey, white and black.

At Christmas time in Hoboken the greys are broken by trees filled with colored lights. There are lights on the handrails going up the stoops; there are wreaths on doors. Every business has a sign that says "Merry Christmas" and the churches hold out welcoming candles. I'm in the mood for Christmas this year. Looking out my window, I'm happy to stay inside and watch the whirling snow.

It seems to me that as deep winter sets in, the few days of lights, parties and well-wishing are especially comforting. I pull out my Christmas music and dream of sugarplums and eggnog (the real stuff, not out of a package) as Joan Baez sings to me of the infant in the manger, and I think about what Christmas is all about.

I think I escaped the orgy of materialism that characterizes Christmas for so many. I've got nobody to ask for a gift, so I buy little things for myself that I really want, telling myself that it's for Christmas. My grandsons always ask for cash, and they clean up at this time of year. They get little gifts as well, of course, and every aunt and uncle sends money, so they can buy what they want. I'll spend the few days with them--Elias turns 14 on the 23rd, and we usually go out to his favorite restaurant and have Chinese food that night. Christmas Eve we have seafood, as a nod to the boys' Italian connections, (besides, we all love seafood), and we have a tree. No doubt where they live there will be a great deal of snow, so they may make a trip to Hunter Mountain to ski. Christmas Day will be quiet, and we've been invited to a friend's house for the feast. The new tradition of potluck for holiday meals strikes me as not only appropriate, but a beautiful way to bring guests into the festivities.

The season is profound, spiritual, and even romantic--as long as you're not making it about how much you have to do, how much you have to spend, how much you have to cook, even how much you have to decorate. I won't even open the little box of ornaments I've saved for some 40 years, but I'll think about how pretty everything looks anyway. I'll feel the peace of the season, and the hope for better things ahead.

After the new year, the country will really begin to feel the pain the mismanagement of our precious optimism and talents has wrought. From all accounts, 2009 is going to be a difficult year for all of us. But not today, not this Christmas, not if we can only recapture the spirit the season exists to engender.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Star for Hoboken

December 12, 2008

I looked for Frank Sinatra's house before I even moved to Hoboken. I had the address, 415 Monroe Street, and I had my walking shoes on. I knew the house was no longer there, but I wanted to see the neighborhood.

What I saw was a nicely-scrubbed row of houses, some quite old, but all in good shape, and some new buildings that clearly Frank Sinatra never saw. I found the star on the sidewalk in front of where the old tenement building of Frank's early years had been. I walked around the neighborhood and saw an old man walking into a place called Antique Bakery, with its storefront window piled with the rightly famous rounds (all sizes) of Italian bread. I could have been walking on a street in Florence or Rome.

No question about it, Frank Sinatra walked these streets. It's his birthday today, and I'm going to have a marathon of his music in my own home--old records like "In the Wee Small Hours" and some going back to the years when he sang for the Tommy Dorsey band. I'm sure there'll be Sinatra movies on the tube, maybe Young at Heart, the remake of Four Daughters, in which he played the John Garfield role and made it his own, or dancing with Gene Kelly in On the Town. At least in my imagination, I'll raise a glass to him in the old Rat Pack days, when he lit up Las Vegas with his band of talented drinking buddies.

Sinatra and Hoboken had a tenuous relationship after he moved on. The more the town liked him, it seemed, the less he liked it. Many locals were hurt by his ambivalence about Hoboken. When I talk with my blog-buddies about Frank in Hoboken, their admiration for his talent is tinged with bitterness about his personality and his behavior as a big star. The Hoboken in which he grew up was a different place from the little jewel we know today. It was tough and grimy, and though he had it good--with a doting mother and enough pals who were connected with the powerful mob of the day--his character had been forged in the blue-collar Hoboken world and tempered by early success in show business. Everybody has a Frank Sinatra story or two, and not all of them are pleasant. But some of them are wonderful.

His songs were the soundtrack of my early days. My mother used to sing, "It was just a neighborhood dance," (which I was later to learn was Frank's "Oh, What It Seemed To Be,") as she did chores around the house. When I was a little girl, the Swoonatra phenom was in full swing, and we thought it was hilarious that teenagers would keel over at the skinny guy's concerts, saying, "Oh, Frankie!" I wonder if they ever said that. Soon I was a teenager, riveted by his performance as Maggio in From Here To Eternity, and swooning a little myself as his casual swinger Charlie is hogtied by Debbie Reynolds in The Tender Trap.

Complex and fascinating, Sinatra the man has been the subject of many books and articles. Whenever a celebrity on a talk show has a Sinatra anecdote, I sit up and listen well. There's simply something about the guy. And it's something to think about, at least on his birthday.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Wherefore Hoboken?

December 9, 2008

Want to know what I like about Hoboken? I'll tell you what I like about Hoboken.

It's a small city that feels like a part of Manhattan. It's in a state that is as varied as it is provincial--a little of everything. You can walk everywhere, and I do, even when the weather is frigid as it was yesterday. I went to the gym at 3 in the afternoon--a first for me at that hour--expecting the temperature to be so intolerable I would have to turn back. (Don't forget, I moved here from the South a year ago, and I spent the whole of last winter suffering in the cold.) By 3 P.M. it was a balmy 30° degrees, and I was sufficiently bundled. I hardly felt the chill as I walked my brisk six-block hike to the sports club. I felt infinitely better after a brief workout and browsed in the big CVS for lotions and potions, finding a lotion to my liking and getting one of those delightful receipts that offers you $5 off your next purchase of $25 or more. (My lotion was less than $25.)

Hoboken has a funny name. I met Jerry Stiller last year, and when I was introduced the person said, "She lives in Hoboken." Stiller gave me that famous New York quizzical look and said, "You live in Hoboken?" I still don't know what he meant by that, but I'll assume he knows what a cool place Hoboken is and that the question was posed in admiration.

I have a friend who writes a New York blog, and he maintains that the Upper West Side, where he has lived some 40 years, is really a small town where everybody knows everybody and many are related. Never mind that the "everybody" includes famous playwrights, artists and noted Jewish intellectuals like my friend. Living in Hoboken I can have dinner with him from time to time and be regaled with stories of his famous friends and acquaintances, as I shall do this evening.

If the Upper West Side is a small town, Hoboken is certainly a small town too. We have our celebrities, although some are dead. I often see Danny Aiello lunching at Tutta Pasta, and every store plays Frank Sinatra music on the sound system, especially at Christmas. For a small town Hoboken has great food and great eaters. Hoboken has little mom-and-pop stores (way more per capita than the Upper West Side). Hoboken is authentic, an American original born out of the immigrant experience and the working class. Hoboken has heart to spare, and memories, and a future.

I moved to Hoboken from a little town in the South that was undergoing a total upheaval and really moving into the 21st Century, with huge new buildings, excited new residents, and a penchant for tearing out the genuine to replace it with the phony. Some tell me the same thing has happened in Hoboken, but when I go to the library or the train station or eat at Helmer's or the Elysian or Leo's Grandez-Vous, you couldn't prove it by me.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Here's To the Offbeat

December 6, 2008

If you're looking for something a little offbeat to read, I just discovered that my friend Rupert Schmitt had published a book of poetry. There is nobody more offbeat than Rupert who spent a few nights in my garage a year or so ago, not long before I moved to Hoboken.

Here's one of his poems.

Film Against Mountain

Are you too sacred
To catch on film?

You have strategies
From Rock to Rattle my ego.
Your vastness
Shakes my center.

Am I mocked?
Will I remember mountain
On the lost roll of film?

Immoral to consider
Looking at you
As one of 36 slides
Stuck in a folder
In a box
Buried under the talus slide
In my bedroom.

On your slopes a man loses
If he pounds his chest
Look at me!
Look at me!
Look at me!

Months later
I found the film
Within a tube
In its can,
Jammed in the glove compartment
Of my bright red Rambler wagon.

There is no competition
Memory versus film
The trap of emulsion.

Mountain Spirit is seared into my brain
Like filet mignon wrapped in bacon
At Antoine's in New Orleans
When I was eighteen.

Even that is not as offbeat at Rupert himself, but it demonstrates his magic. He dwells in many places at once, bouncing happily off the walls and contemplating the mysteries of the outdoors. A retired environmental scientist, he is now a performance artist, poet and painter living in Arizona and going where he likes. He loves animals and nature, and his book The Interview reflects that. He is at once serious and whimsical, funny and profound. In his poems he captures many facets of a life lived for its own sake, full of love and the adventure of small events and odd creatures. He writes of cats and water birds, of family and love affairs. He looks at the world with wonder, humor, and sometimes anger. Even though not always thorough and disciplined as a poet--and never lengthy--he is always original and always delicious.

If you're interested, the book can be ordered from, for Christmas or if you're in the mood for something a little offbeat yourself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Cool-Colored People

December 4, 2008

The other morning I had the Today program on as kind of white noise to my life and I looked up and there was the most gloriously beautiful woman I'd seen in years, singing an odd song called "If I Were a Boy," in front of crowds standing outside in the cold, bouncing to the rhythm, and mouthing all the lyrics with her. I watched the whole performance, intrigued with the song and the singer, and learned at the end it was the famed Beyoncé. I need not tell you at this point that whatever the opposite of hip is, that's what I am.

Seeing this elegant icon sent me back to my high school days in Alabama. We had a girl in the class who had moved to town from Chicago and she was telling us about a book she'd just read stating the premise that by the year 2000 there would be so much intermarriage in this world that there would be no separate races. Everybody would be a beautiful beige color and they would share the most attractive physical characteristics of all races. She said she couldn't wait to see that day.

Needless to say it didn't happen exactly the way her book predicted. Don't forget the time and place she was reading it; we had never even seen an interracial couple. But watching and listening to Beyoncé, I was struck with how close we are coming to the day when the melding will take place. It didn't happen in Y2K, but look around you at the beautiful people who are beginning to surround us, the cool people who are a mixture of colors and ethnicities. Their stars are rising, and they are already among us. From actors like Terence Howard and Halle Berry to the president elect, the number of cool people in the spotlight--people who happen to be of mixed racial background--is notable and growing, and will probably change the world in less than a generation. The day hasn't quite come, but it is drawing closer. Look around you.