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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 28, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Best Gifts, Cranford, Seven Pounds

Come on, admit it. There's a hint of competitiveness about Christmas.

When you're little, it's to receive the coolest gift. (Or, if you're a depressive six-year-old, to notice that everybody else got cooler gifts.)

But when you're older, you want to think of and then find or make the perfect gift.

My wife has found me the perfect gift many times over the years. I'm not as good at that as she is. I mostly tend to try to try a scattershot approach. Since I give her twelve gifts leading up to Christmas (but never a pear tree or a partridge), somewhere in that collection there's bound to be something memorable or fun or really pleasing.

I think it says something that the gift I gave her that she remembers most was from four years before we got married, the first time I gave her twelve days of Christmas.

I was less than poor -- I existed on handouts from my parents, since I didn't even have a job, having just returned from my mission in Brazil.

So the gifts were things like a box of animal crackers, a cake I made myself, and the gift she mentions most often as a favorite: "eight ripe bananas," all in a line, hanging by Christmas ribbon from the banister down the stairs in her parents' house.

Since then we've discovered that her definition of "ripe" and mine are very different, when it comes to bananas. But anyway, that one I know succeeded. But it was thirty-six Christmases (and 432 days of Christmas) ago, so I know I'm still an apprentice as a gift-giver.

This year, she won hands down in our toe-to-toe gift-giving. (Which, if you think about it, isn't the world's easiest position to get into.) Ever since we first saw it, we've loved Brian Kershisnik's painting "Nativity." It's a massive work, which we saw in the Fine Arts Museum at Brigham Young University.

When we walked into the gallery where it's displayed, it literally made me gasp. And the more I looked at it, the more emotional I became. I don't get emotional at paintings very often, and Kershisnik easily holds the record for moving me.

His simple-seeming style is deceptive -- he's realistic enough to create emotional reactions through the facial expressions and body poses of the people in his paintings, and yet unrealistic enough that you look for meaning behind the image as well.

Seeing it full-size is the best way, of course, but we don't have a wall in our house large enough to hold such a painting even if we could afford it. This year, though, my wife found a decent-sized reproduction of Kershisnik's "Nativity" before I did, and as I spread the canvas on the floor I was as moved as the first time I saw it.

So she won.

If you want to see an online reproduction of the painting, here it is:

But then, you never really can predict which gifts are going to be absolutely memorable. You give a gift hoping it will be useful, or at least enjoyed.

My mother probably has no idea how much it meant to me to get a batch of her caramels this Christmas. I've managed to eke them out for a full two weeks.

I loved the caramels partly because they tasted as good as ever -- in fact, this may be one of the best batches I've ever had. And partly because she's been having inner-ear balance issues and standing up for any length of time is hard for her. Since you can't make caramels sitting down, unless you have a very low stove, it meant she went to extraordinary efforts to make this candy.

I showed no such self-restraint, however, with the homemade chocolates some friends here in Greensboro gave us -- they were gone in, oh, ten minutes. And when my cousin Mark sent his annual gift of the best chocolate-covered cashews made anywhere, they barely lasted two days. (It was a big tin!)

And we do tell people we prefer consumable gifts, mostly because we have enough stuff in our house. In fact, we're actually performing a steady triage on the thousands of books and DVDs we own.

Will I ever read or even refer to this book again? No? Off it goes to Ed McKay's used-book store.

Will we ever look at this DVD and choose to watch it, rather than any of the others we own? Then why is it taking up space on the shelves in the family room?

So who knew that the gift that completely captured us on Christmas day would be the two-DVD set of all five hours of Cranford?

When this first ran on TV, we heard about it and TiVoed it -- but never had time to watch it. Finally we erased it without ever seeing a moment of it.

But then Mike and Nancy Black -- my wife's sister, who by sheer coincidence is married to our genius accountant -- sent us the DVD set along with a note about how much they loved it.

It starred Judi Dench and was a mid-1800s period piece and it was from BBC and ran on Masterpiece Theatre here in the States. That's why we recorded it in the first place.

But that's also why we didn't watch it then, I think. After all, if something titled Cranford was such a classic, why hadn't I ever heard of it as literature? I have a master's degree in English Lit, don't I? If it was any good, surely it should be famous among English grad students!

But Mike and Nancy said it was wonderful and so we sat down to "watch a little of it."

Five hours later, having taken no breaks except when I had to swap discs, we were so immersed, so filled with the joy and grief and hope and dignity and grace of these stories that we sat and watched the whole making-of documentary. We just didn't want to let go of Cranford.

From BBC productions of classics of literature, we expect the acting to be brilliant, and it was. Every single actor created characters that we believed in and loved, both the ones we recognized from other British productions (Imelda Staunton, for instance, who was so brilliant in the Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility) and the ones we were seeing for the first time (Francesca Annis, who was breathtakingly good as Lady Ludlow, or Alex Etel, who, as Harry Gregson, gave one of the best child-actor performances I've ever seen).

The series feels like one long, continuous film, but the star is not any one character, though the lives of Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) and young Dr. Harrison (Simon Woods) provide the through lines that give the whole series unity.

The writing team did a beautiful job of drawing from several novels and stories by Elizabeth Gaskell. She wrote as "Mrs. Gaskell," which makes her sound old-fashioned and stuffy. And, indeed, the lives of the people in the small town of Cranford are penned in and defined by rules of exquisite delicacy.

But Gaskell herself is at once impatient with and yet rather fond of these rules, and, really, everything about the life of the conservative, proper, hidebound, and yet also fearful and kind and generous and foolish smalltown people.

Most writers who "do a number" on smalltown life are savage and mean-spirited, seeing only the bad. Gaskell's achievement (helped by the screenwriters and actors and director) is to show us ways in which everybody does good and bad things; by the end, we love them all, even the ones whose actions we deplore and grieve over.

Because most of the time, everyone is trying to do the right thing, and is truly remorseful when they realize that they have done wrong.

The first episode begins very slowly, as Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) arrives in Cranford as a visitor escaping an impossible stepmother who is desperate to get her out of the house. She lives with a pair of spinster aunts and is soon caught up in the concerns -- and mysteries -- of the people of their social class. And other social classes as well.

If you wanted a short course in the transformations of smalltown English society during the industrial revolution, it's all here in this film. Where Dickens is urban and extravagant, Mrs. Gaskell is semi-rural and delicate.

Anyway, if you measure success in the competition for giving "best gift" by which gifts gets used first and/or most on Christmas day, Mike's and Nancy's gift was the winner.

(No offense to those who also gave us wonderful gifts. We have used many other gifts in the days since Christmas and believe me, we are glad for everything!)

*

We went to the theater Saturday night. The long lines all seemed to be for other movies -- Yes Man, Benjamin Button, Bedtime Stories, Marley and Me.

And we'll probably eventually see at least two of those. (Jim Carrey and the dog didn't look very promising to us.)

What we went to see, however, was Seven Pounds, starring Will Smith. This movie was intriguing but the promos were almost too mysterious. We had no idea, really, what it was about.

Now, having seen the movie, I completely understand why the marketing was so vague -- it would wreck this movie to know anything about it before you see it.

So I'm going to be just as vague as the promotions. But let's start with this: Seven Pounds is one of the three best movies I saw this past year.

But then a warning: It starts in a hopeless muddle. There's a flash forward. A flash back. And little help or explanation. My wife, who is as impatient with artiness as I am, said, "If this wasn't a Will Smith movie, I'd be suggesting we go do something else."

Now, there are those who, a few years ago, heeded my rave review about Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which also was confusing and arty and emotional, and absolutely hated it.

Seven Pounds is not like that. There is no weird sci-fi theme to it. All the explanations are perfectly natural and realistic and they will be explained to you so that, by the end, you'll understand every speck of the story.

In fact, I guessed most of the story within the first fifteen minutes, but it was fine to let the film come out the way it did.

Which is hard for me to say, believe me, because I tell my writing students to tell their stories in time order if they possibly can. But this story simply could not have been told as effectively in straight time order.

So trust me on this, the way my wife and I trusted Will Smith. This is a profound movie, dealing with deep ethical issues. But it's also an emotional ride, in which you will, as we did, fall in love with at least two of the characters (and quite possibly more).

Bring a package of tissues. It's a weeper. But it's also a smart, smart movie. You'll be thinking about it for days.


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