Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve on Sand Point

It is late on Christmas Eve on Sand Point, and all is quiet. Of the 20-odd houses on the point, only two are lit, mine and my neighbor’s. The other owners are in Florida and Texas and Connecticut and other places in the lower latitudes. It is 24 degrees here now, and the ground is snow-covered, just enough to make it a white Christmas.

Across the tidal river to the north one house has Christmas lights in the windows, and their reflection on the water is picturesque. I have two white stars in my windows, and the lights are on at the front entrance, so that those people across the river have something to look at. To the south lies the Atlantic. You can hear the surf, because it is almost high tide, but beyond the windows there is only blackness.

Earlier, I went to Mass at St. Martha’s, in Kennebunk. I arrived at least 15 minutes before Mass was supposed to start, but I was still too late. The large parking lot was filled, so that I had to park a few blocks from the church. Inside, it was jam-packed, not just in the church proper, but in the adjoining spaces as well. Father Tom Murphy said the Mass, and a red-and-black-robed choir, about 15 voices strong, sang Christmas hymns. Somehow I found a few square feet to inhabit, amid a sea of people, many in wheelchairs. Father Tom’s brief but eloquent sermon, the choir’s note-perfect singing, and the sensation of being present at an Event were all very moving.

Tonight I have been watching the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s Christmas Eve concert. I have seen it before, about a week ago, but it was good enough for a reprise. There is something about a large, well-trained chorus that raises goosebumps on me - but only if there are both male and female voices. I have heard good ladies’ choruses and good male choruses, but only a mixed chorus sounds complete to these ears. And the Mormon Choir is as good as it gets. A highlight of tonight’s concert was a recitation by historian David McCullough, who recounted Churchill’s visit to Washington on Christmas 1941, only weeks after Pearl Harbor. McCullough claimed that Churchill, hearing O Little Town of Bethlehem sung on Christmas Eve, said that he had never the hymn before. I thought that unlikely, so I raced to my library and quickly found the episode in Churchill’s history of WWII, and – as I should have known – McCullough was right. Another of McCullough’s stories illuminated the origins of I’ll Be Home for Christmas, surely one of the best of the Christmas ballads.

Now Christmas Day is only minutes away, so I will wish everyone who takes the trouble to read these scribblings a blessed Christmas and a happy new year.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Postcards from the Edge

To judge by its subject matter, Postcards from the Edge is a movie I would not under any circumstances watch. But there it was on the telly, and before I could change the channel I caught a bit of dialogue that sounded clever. And then another bit of bright dialogue, and then a whole scene, and I was hooked. That was about 10 years ago. The other night I watched it again to see if my first impressions deceived me. They did not. It’s a good movie, a little sloppy in the editing, but otherwise a film with one standout scene after another.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a story about a mother-daughter relationship, written by Carrie Fisher, an authority on the subject. The mother, played by Shirley Maclaine, is an alcoholic. The daughter, played by Meryl Streep, is a junkie. (Now you see why it’s not my type of movie.) Three things elevate the film above its story line: (1) Meryl Streep, (2) Shirley Maclaine, and (3) the sharpness of Carrie Fisher’s writing.

The movie takes place in Hollywood, for the mother is an over-the-hill movie actress and the daughter is trying to climb the hill. Say, doesn’t that sound like Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher? No, but close. Carrie carries around lots of bittersweet memories about Mom and Eddie Fisher, her dad, who left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor, who left Eddie for Richard Burton, who left…… Some of the memories undoubtedly “informed” Postcards, but Carrie was saving the best stuff for her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, which was just shown on HBO.

In Postcards, Mom advises daughter that she should give up acting in third-rate movies and focus instead on a singing career. The advice is sound, but the daughter is wary: Mom sings, and she doesn’t want to compete with Mom, because Mom always wins. Interesting sidelight: A review of Wishful Drinking notes that Carrie Fisher is a talented singer, though Mom is of course the “name” singer. (Personal note: As an emcee at an industry conference, I once shared a stage with Debbie Reynolds and found her great fun to work with. It is hard for me to believe that Shirley was channeling Debbie in the movie.)

The scenes between Streep and Maclaine are the core of this movie. They are duels dripping with bitterness, and they are terrific. Others flit around the edges of the story: Gene Hackman is just right as a film director, and Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, and Dennis Quaid help out in roles that are inconsequential at best.

It was no surprise to find Meryl Streep delivering another memorable performance; all her performances are memorable. But Maclaine outdid herself. She is best known as a talented singer and dancer, but here was a dramatic turn that was very demanding, and she scored a bull’s eye. At least some of the credit for her bitchy performance must go to Director Mike Nichols, who also directed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Elizabeth Taylor as the bitchy Martha.

Hollywood is a very small world.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Needed: A Coalition Government

Great Britain has it right: They are tackling the hard times by entrusting their fate to a coalition government. David Cameron is the conservative half, Nick Clegg the liberal half. And they seem to be making a go of it, despite student riots over tuition hikes and assorted other squabbles. The point is, while we’re on the brink of at least two years of deadlock, Britain cannot have deadlock, because both sides are running the country.

It can’t happen here, you say? Don’t be too sure. Erskine Bowles, a credentialed Democrat, and Alan Simpson, a staunch Republican, head a task force studying the mother of all problems, the deficit, and they have just submitted their report spelling out the harsh medicine that is needed. Outgoing Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) are regulars on television, displaying uncommon civility, respect for each other, and great common sense. Either of these pairings would make a dream team in the White House. And why not? It is not constitutionally ordained that the President and Vice-President must be of the same party, and all you would need is a pre-election promise that the two would govern as a coalition. Given the pickle we’re in, it is time to think outside the box.

The political difficulty of tackling the deficit is huge, but that is not the only problem that cries out for a coalition. Here’s another: The politicians whose conservative economic policies we tend to favor are also the politicians most hawkish in matters of foreign policy. In the voting both, we are always forced to choose either someone who will bankrupt the country or someone who is willing to risk World War 3.

It is easy to start a war (just ask George Bush), but it can be devilishly hard to end one (just ask Barack Obama). It’s a much smaller world than it was in 1941, so that in any war involving the major powers, the continental U.S. would certainly be attacked. As General Turgidson said in Dr Strangelove, we would have “10, maybe 20 million killed – tops – depending on the breaks.”

We certainly want to have a first-class military to defend our homeland, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, put China or Russia in a position where they feel threatened. There’s a balance to be struck in foreign relations, and the political chemistry these days makes balance in anything nearly impossible.

The leaders of the coalition that is needed obviously cannot be from the extreme left or right. A coalition teaming, say, Sarah Palin with Nancy Pelosi would never get beyond the first round (but would have high entertainment value). We need grown-ups to put their heads together and plot a course out of this mess. Unfortunately, grown-ups are in short supply in today’s Washington.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Big Bang and Other Noteworthy Incidents

Perceived wisdom has it that the universe began with the Big Bang, which occurred about 13.7 billion years ago, when a cosmic speck inflated to a zillionth times its size in a zillionth of a second. The Big Bang then slowed down and became a small bang, which keeps the universe expanding to this very day. To me, that was never very convincing, as it still left unexplained where the speck came from or what preceded it. Now an astronomer, Roger Penrose of Oxford, says that the Bang was just another in a series of bangs that go on forever. Each universe expands to a point where all the matter is sucked into black holes, becomes infinitely small, and a new Big Bang is generated. Moreover, these bangs leave imprints in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), and – this is the best part – Dr Penrose claims to have found such imprints in data from a US satellite dedicated to studying the CMB. Infinity is hard for us humans to understand, but I find Penrose’s story more believable than a single Big Bang that came out of nowhere.

Stephen Sondheim’s new book, Finishing the Hat, is a very satisfying trip through the first half of the composer/lyricist’s career on Broadway. (A sequel is in the works.) The book contains the complete lyrics of a number of Sondheim’s shows, but the grabber is what the book’s subtitle calls “attendant comments, principles, heresies, grudges, whines and anecdotes.” Among the heresies is the author’s trenchant criticism of the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein (who, as is widely known, was Sondheim’s surrogate father and mentor). Sondheim dismisses the lyrics to “All the Things You Are” as just pretty words, devoid of meaning. Which just means that Sondheim, no romantic he, doesn’t get “the promised kiss of springtime that makes the lonely winter seem long.” That sort of thing seems tone-deaf and ungrateful, but it doesn’t diminish the reader’s appreciation of the book. For one thing, he reserves his barbs for lyricists who are dead (and therefore unlikely to be offended). For another, he is equally harsh on some of his own lyrics, as he should be. The lyrics for “I Feel Pretty,” from West Side Story, are Sondheim at his worst. But Sondheim at his best is very good indeed, and his explanations of the art and craft of lyric-writing are worth reading.

While we’re on Sondheim, his 80th birthday concert, held at Avery Fisher Hall, is a must-see. I particularly liked the inclusion of so many relatively unknown songs and the finale, with six divas dressed in red each giving a tour de force rendition of one of Sondheim’s classics, the high points being Marin Maizzie’s “It Never Entered My Mind” and Elaine Stritch’s “I’m Still Here.”

The acting troop at the Saco River Grange Hall can be counted on to serve up an entertaining evening of drama, and this fall’s presentation, Shivaree, by William Mastrosimone, was no exception. Jennifer Porter, SRGH’s perennial leading lady, took the title role and was good as always. But the group tends to choose plays (and movies) with downbeat subject matter, and I personally enjoy its musical outings (Always Patsy Cline, And the World Goes ‘Round, An Evening with Jennifer Porter and Friends) much more.