When I was a kid, my parents had an ironclad rule: No Christmas music until after Thanksgiving. They considered themselves to be quite open-minded when they allowed Christmas music on Thanksgiving day -- after the feast.
As soon as I lived on my own, I began playing Christmas music the first cold night of the year -- which in the desert mountain country of Utah meant mid-September.
If you had asked me then, I would have told you that I loved Christmas music.
But the definition of "Christmas music" has changed since I was young. For me, Christmas music was a combination of the birth-of-Christ hymns we sang in church during the holiday season and the "Jolly Old Saint Nicholas" songs we sang at home and in the car.
Gradually, I grew up enough to enjoy the Tin Pan Alley holiday love songs like "Let It Snow" and "Winter Wonderland," and when I spent a Christmas in Brazil, far from family and with the cognitive dissonance of having Christmas take place in summer, I could make myself cry by singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."
As an adult, I came to know and love Handel's Messiah, and I've sung in public performances of all the major choruses a dozen times or so. Since my stroke, I can't hit the relentless Gs that the tenors have to sing in the "Hallelujah" chorus, but it's still fun to do the runs in "For Unto Us a Child Is Born."
What I could never reconcile myself to were the rock-n-roll songs that mentioned Christmas trees and snow. I didn't know anybody who "rocked" around the Christmas tree. I also detested the Burl Ives school of Christmas songs: "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas." What does that mean, exactly?
Nothing, that's what.
As America becomes de-Christianized -- a deliberate program of the "tolerant," who believe that every culture should be promoted here in America except American Christian traditions, which are treated as if they carried the smallpox virus -- more and more of our public celebration of Christmas consists of music from the "Rockin'" and "Holly Jolly" tradition, while anything traditional is avoided. Unless the musical arrangement makes every song up-tempo, syncopated, and jazzy.
Sirius-XM radio used to have a Classical Pops station as well as Symphony Hall, and at Christmas time you were likely to get a good selection of the Christ-centered classical music. In addition, they had a pop-rock Christmas station and a traditional-pop Christmas station, so I could avoid the "Holly Jolly" and "Rockin'" stuff and listen to the nostalgic American pop songs, from "Chestnuts roasting" to "If only in my dreams."
This year, though, all the Christmas stations think their job is to get people to dance. No matter which holiday station I go to, the traditional music is absent or deformed. There is nothing about "Sleigh Ride" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" that has anything at all to do with Christmas.
And yes, I know, neither do "Jingle Bells" or "Deck the Halls" -- but I'm not asking for such songs to be banned (well, except for "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which belongs in the same hell as "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall"). My problem is the relentlessly up-tempo secular music that avoids anything that might make somebody think that Christmas is about family, tradition, nostalgia, faith, and longtime love -- rather than making whoopee near a roaring fire.
Folks, while I have come to deeply hate "Frosty the Snowman" and "Rudolph," mostly because they're one-joke songs whose joke is over, I don't really hate any Christmas music. I just hate the playlists that show only one narrow facet of Christmas and omit almost everything that I love about the season and the celebration of it.
Are there non-Christians who feel left out of the Christian celebration of Christmas? Sure. So what?
I believe we should respect the majority culture wherever we are. When I was in Israel during the Feast of Tabernacles, I had no problem going along with the need to take my meals outside the hotel in a tent, because I knew that I was in a place with an ancient culture different from mine.
Why do Americans now feel the need to pretend that our background, our history, our founding had nothing to do with the Christian religion of our first waves of European immigrants? In our melting pot, we embraced the Irish celebration of St. Patrick's Day and turned St. Valentine's Day into a celebration of the misery of those who don't have a date for that evening. We adapted and changed the holidays till they meant something to everyone.
Arguably, that's what's happening again. And yet it's not. St. Pat's Day wasn't taken over by Ulster Protestants; the rivers and the beer don't run orange, they run green. So why should the general Protestant Christian traditions that grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the pop culture that arose along with them, be suppressed and censored in the effort not to "offend" tender-hearted non-Christians who are apparently unaware that America already had a culture before they or their ancestors arrived?
A huge public celebration of Christmas -- including creches and pageants and honest-to-goodness Christmas music -- doesn't harm anybody who wishes not to take part. So you feel left out of all the Christmas decorations and songs and images; go home and enjoy your Christmas-free house.
I have a friend who keenly remembers being terrified of hireling "Santas" he was dragged to see as a child, and so he and his wife raised their children in a Santa-free home. They taught their young kids not to break the news to their still-believing friends, and treated the whole Santa thing as a cultural phenomenon that they had opted out of.
I've done similar things. I really hate bunnies and eggs being mixed in with the atonement of Christ at Easter time, so in our house, the Easter baskets were set out on Friday night and discovered and enjoyed on Saturday. Then Easter Sunday was purely religious and bunny-free.
You can opt out of any portion of a celebration that you don't care for, and as far as I can tell, both that Santa-free family and our own no-bunny-on-Easter family have done just fine.
We were able to handle things our own way, within our families, without requiring everybody else in the world to change what they were doing.
And don't get me wrong -- good Christmas music didn't stop getting written after Mel Torme roasted his last chestnut. Joni Mitchell's "River" ("It's coming on Christmas / They're cutting down trees / They're putting up reindeer / and singing songs of joy and peace /Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on") is not a Christmas carol -- but it is a work of profound nostalgia and regret, which is one of the most powerful moods of Christmastime.
And Kenny Loggins made something wonderful when he wrote and sang "Celebrate Me Home." He's speaking for me with these words: "Home for the holidays / I believe I've missed each and every face / Come on and play my music / Let's turn on the love light in the place."
So go ahead and "rock around" your Christmas Tree -- just intersperse such music with Bing singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "The Little Drummer Boy." (Did you know that "The Little Drummer Boy" was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers?)
Do your souped-up Santa tunes, but don't ban the grand old Christmas tunes from the Great American Songbook -- I don't want to hear jazzy modern versions, I want to hear Steve and Eydie singing romantic Christmas duets, between gentle renditions of Alfred Burt's Christmas carols and John Rutter's Cambridge Choir Christmas albums.
And Sirius-XM: Can't we have one genuine Christmas-music station during the holiday season?
"Please, celebrate me home ... / Play me one more song / That I'll always remember ..."
The shirt purveyor UNTUCKit came out of nowhere, but their ads are everywhere this Christmas. Since, as a fat guy, I prefer to wear big loose untucked shirts rather than form-fitting ones that make me look like a sausage, I succumbed immediately to the hype and ordered a couple from UNTUCKit.com.
Guess what? A size 3X shirt on UNTUCKit is the exact equivalent of XL shirts from Orvis or Casual Male. The label definitely said 3X, but the fact that the buttons and button holes were six inches apart no matter how tightly I pulled the shirt across my back made it clear that UNTUCKit only cares about helping thin people get that casual untucked look.
You know, the people who look great with their shirts tucked in because there's no belly hanging over the belt: They can get nice untucked shirts from UNTUCKit.
So, men of size, be warned: UNTUCKit is as fat-guy-hostile as The Gap and Old Navy and all the other mall stores that we've been trained to stay out of.
When I read Anna Kendrick's memoir a couple of weeks ago, I was intrigued by her mention of a movie that I had never heard of: Mr. Right, also starring Sam Rockwell and Tim Roth.
Now, I had seen the John Malkovitch sci-fi rom-com Making Mr. Right from 1987, and it was unwatchably bad, though John Malkovitch himself is never unwatchable. So it's possible that when I saw Mr. Right being promoted last year (2015), maybe I simply tuned it out by reflex.
Or maybe it's one of those movies that is so weirdly brilliant that the marketing people have no idea how to promote it in order to identify the audience that would really love the movie. Seeing clips of a hit man with a clown nose does not convey anything about the actual film, and may have driven away much of its natural audience.
I'm in that audience, so I'm a bit annoyed that I didn't get to vote for this film with theater tickets -- I've only seen it at home on television in the past couple of weeks.
Watched it twice, but both times I started at least ten minutes in, so I have no idea how it actually opens. It doesn't matter -- the synopses I'd read got me up to speed.
Mr. Right is about how Martha (Anna Kendrick) finds this crazy-fun guy with a homeless vibe (Sam Rockwell as Francis) and falls in love with him ... only to find out that he's actually a highly skilled hit man.
Except that a few years ago he realized that murdering people is wrong, and so he changed his work methods. Now, when somebody hires him (because, after all, he's well known to be the best at killing people who are well protected), he kills the person doing the hiring instead of the person they hired him to kill.
It isn't clear whether he keeps the money ... that's the kind of thing that bothers me but doesn't bother most movie-watchers.
Oh, and Francis wears a red clown nose when he does his killing, because, you know, aren't we supposed to be having fun here?
So while Martha is busy falling in and out of and back into love with Francis, there's a crime family that are trying to get the head of the family to hire him so that Francis will kill him, thus allowing the underlings to take over the organization.
And in the meantime, Tim Roth, as a former CIA guy who once worked with Francis, is trying to ... well, I'm not sure what he's trying to do, since he no longer works for the agency. It sounds as though he's trying to get Francis back under his control so they can go back to doing clandestine wetwork-for-hire together.
Here's why I love this movie: The insane romance between Martha and Francis works perfectly. There is genius-level chemistry between Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick, as we begin to understand how weirdly sensible he is -- and how the life of a killer on the run is exactly what Martha was always looking for without realizing it.
They are funny together. They are funny separately. I think it's Kendrick's best performance on film, and Sam Rockwell gets to dominate this movie in a way he's never had a chance to do before. And when you add Tim Roth into the mix, as the only grownup (and the most dangerous stone-cold killer in the cast), it may be the best rom-com killer-thriller every created.
Oh, and as a bonus, when Francis is doing his killing, he keeps trying to talk his opponents out of dying. He makes it clear that he's going to be able to kill them no matter what they do, so ... can't you please just go away? But then they threaten his girlfriend -- or kidnap her -- and he has no choice but to keep her safe. Right?
In the real world, I'm very much against murder -- for hire or as a volunteer. But in this mad comedy it's a Deadpool-like pleasure to watch Rockwell go through the moves of his capoeira-inspired martial arts methods. It really is choreography, and quite beautiful and graceful to watch.
Don't get me wrong: People die constantly in this movie, and there's lots of blood that people keep slipping and sliding around in. The language is extravagantly foul and nobody wants to watch this with their mother. But if you can get past that, it's one of the alltime best violent thrillers I've ever seen, and you might enjoy it almost as much as I do.
Oh, and did I mention? Not a Christmas movie. Not on the Hallmark Channel.
Speaking of Hallmark Channel, they know their audience and, instead of treating them with contempt as so many networks and cable channels do, they actually seem to respect and care about their core audience.
And who is that audience? I'm guessing it consists mostly of women over thirty -- often well over thirty -- who are looking for vicarious romance to enrich their generally romance-free lives. Many of them are single, widowed, or divorced -- but many are married to husbands both romantic and dull.
Yeah, those women ... and me.
Hallmark loves these folks so much that they're running all of 2016's new Christmas movies, back-to-back, starting at 8 pm Christmas Eve and continuing all day Christmas. And this marathon is completely commercial-free.
Only I hope they make an exception for the absolutely beautiful commercials that Hallmark has been inserting into the shows that are designated as Hallmark Hall of Fame.
I well remember how awful Hallmark's commercials were back in the day. Their formula in the 1970s was to show somebody personally handing a Hallmark card to another person. Then the recipient was deeply moved over a pretty generic message pre-printed on the card. The moral of the story? "Hallmark: When you care enough to give the very best."
Well, in those days we all knew Hallmark cards were, in fact, the highest quality -- and when funny greeting cards came into vogue, Hallmark introduced their Shoebox line and cornered that market as well.
But the commercials were so smarmy. I remember joining with my family in mocking them. "If you're standing right there, why are you giving them a generic card? Why don't you just say what you mean?"
You know, talking. Cards are not an adequate substitute for conversation, especially in conveying positive emotions. You only use the cards when you can't do it in person, either because of distance or stagefright.
Well, in the thirty-plus years since that icky campaign, Hallmark has either changed ad agencies or, because they're so good at running a cable channel, they've developed a better story sense themselves.
They've created a series of "care enough" commercials that are every bit as enjoyable and moving as any of their two-hour movies.
For instance, there's the businesswoman who is clearly worried about a presentation or interview she's about to give, nervously reading over some papers. Then she stuffs the envelope into her bag and goes out into the rain. She's carrying an umbrella, but when she sees a homeless guy sitting on the sidewalk with no protection from the rain, she goes over to him and hands him her umbrella.
She catches the bus and then walks from the bus stop to her meeting, arriving bedraggled and wet. There's no false bravado -- she isn't smiling in pride at having done a good deed. She's wet, uncomfortable, and afraid, because a lot is riding on this meeting.
And the commercial doesn't show how the meeting turns out. Does she get the job? It doesn't matter! The commercial isn't asserting that karma works and by sharing her umbrella she now gets rewarded with a happy outcome. On the contrary, here's the message: "When you care enough to lend a hand, you can change the world."
Yeah, that's right. We don't share an umbrella with someone who needs it more because we believe that we'll get some material reward for it. We share what we have because that will make the world better for the person we help -- and a little bit better for everybody, because we all get to live in a world where acts of kindness take place.
Then there's the music-loving guy in a wheelchair who spiffs himself up to go to a pop music concert. He is helped by a couple of friends, a guy and a girl, who get his wheelchair into a station wagon and enjoy his company on the ride. They go down the street together and then on into the concert. Wheelchair guy is lower than all the people standing near the stage, but he works his way to the front.
Then total strangers, seeing how he's enjoying the music, take hold of his chair and lift him high off the ground so that he now has the best seat in the house. They're still enjoying the concert, and now he can enjoy it much more -- and everyone else can share his visible pleasure. "When you care enough to lift a spirit, you can change the world."
Then there's a dad and a kid getting home with a Christmas tree on top of their car. We see the dad notice the nearby house with a For Sale/Sold sign in front, and how bare and undecorated it looks. So he and a bunch of neighbors start bringing some of their own Christmas lights and decorations over to the house.
When the new family drives up, the lights start coming on, and the family looks in delight at the warm welcome. But it goes farther -- the neighbors come over, talk to them, help them decorate a tree in their new living room, share food with them. About the most brilliant introduction to a new neighborhood that I can imagine. "When you care enough to brighten a day, you can change the world."
Then there's the young woman who brings her nordic-looking boyfriend home to meet her hispanic family during the Christmas season. He clearly feels awkward and a little overwhelmed -- for instance, he doesn't know what to do with the corn-husk wrapping around a tamale -- but he gamely learns what he can and takes part in the family rituals.
Afterward, at the door, he speaks his small amount of Spanish to say "gracias" and "feliz navidad"; and the paterfamilias responds by giving him a Christmas card and saying, "Merry Christmas" in English. Everybody is trying to be, not just polite, but kind and welcoming. "When you care enough to come together, you can change the world."
It's a great campaign. Nobody has to say "Hallmark cards" (only the one ad actually shows a card changing hands, and nobody opens it and reads it on the spot, thank you!) -- apparently they expect people to know what channel they're watching, and to remember the old slogan: "When you care enough to send the very best."
These loving variations on "care enough" are memorable and moving. And you don't have to wait till you happen to see them on TV. Go to http://explore.hallmark.com/careenough/ and watch them all. They're longer than most TV ads -- a minute and a half or longer, three times the length of a thirty-second spot -- but the time is well spent.
Just in case you get the impression that Hallmark invented the Christmas movie, there are a few to show just how badly it can be done. The champion so far, I think, is Deck the Halls from 2006. On my TiVo listing, it shows up with only one star (out of four). Even the worst movies that aren't actually semi-porn usually get a star and a half, but believe me, there's nothing in Deck the Halls to make you want to award them an additional half-star.
Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick get top billing, as suburban neighbors across the street. DeVito claims he wants to be Broderick's friend, but what he mostly wants is to decorate his house so extravagantly that the lights can be seen from space. He keeps doing everything wrong, with disastrous results, and Broderick and DeVito are practically enemies.
Meanwhile, though, their wives -- Kristin Davis and Kristin Chenoweth, who bring more class to this movie than the script deserves -- try to make peace between the two families. DeVito is losing his job over his obsession with the lights on his house, and Broderick's family is frustrated by his obsession with keeping to a strict schedule of "traditions," preventing any new traditions from forming for sheer lack of time.
Of course they're going to reconcile and, after "all is lost" (fifteen minutes before the end), the whole town gathers to help DeVito achieve his goal of lights that can be seen from space. (Hint: With the right instruments, you can see a flashlight from space, so ... big deal.)
They want it both ways. They want to have the extravagant comic exaggeration of the Griswolds and the heartwarming personal growth of a traditional feel-good Christmas movie.
Naturally, they fail completely at both. There is nothing funny or interesting about the way DeVito's house is decorated. There is nothing funny or interesting ever in this movie.
Except: DeVito's boss is played by an engaging actor named Ryan Devlin, who looked familiar to me but I couldn't remember where I'd seen him. My wife didn't recognize him at all; and when I looked him up, I realized why. My wife has never shared my commitment to watching every episode of Cougar Town about three times each, so she didn't know Devlin from his ten-episode stint as Laurie Keller's (Busy Philipps's) last-name first-name rich boyfriend Smith Frank.
Devlin was wonderful in Cougar Town, and during his short amount of screen time in Deck the Halls, he brings a level of charm and reality to the movie that we get from no one else. I hope that somebody from the Hallmark Channel -- or somewhere -- notices him and casts him as the romantic lead in one of next year's round of formulaically good Christmas movies.
There are also appearances by Jorge Garcia (Lost), Fred Armisen (Portlandia), and an uncredited turn by Kal Penn (Kumar of "Harold and Kumar," and now the press secretary on Designated Survivor). Their careers were not destroyed by this movie, so we have to regard it as being relatively harmless.
Deck the Halls isn't bad enough to entertain you by encouraging you to throw popcorn at the screen. It's not funny-bad, it's boring-bad. So really, you should pass it up except for anthropological purposes: Here's what happens when somebody gets the tribal Christmas-movie ritual completely wrong.
I kind of steered away from watching Journey Back to Christmas, because it was a time-travel story -- sci-fi handled by non-sci-fi people is usually awful. Also, I'm afraid that having seen Candace Cameron Buré give smiley-sweet promos for everybody else's Hallmark Christmas movies made me want not to see her in a movie.
So I was wrong. Oh, yes, of course the time travel is triggered by something ridiculous -- the appearance of a "Christmas comet" -- but once Buré, as "Hanna," is projected from 1945 to 2016, she does a good job of looking confused and good-natured, which is enough to make the movie work.
At first, we expect the movie to follow the standard formula: She's a kind-hearted nurse whose husband didn't make it back from World War II, so of course she's going to fall in love with Jake (Oliver Hudson, from Rules of Engagement), the good-natured cop who takes her in when she shows up homeless and confused. His family falls in love with her and of course romance will brew, won't it?
Meanwhile, Tom Skerritt steals whatever scene he's in, playing the one person in 2016 who knew Hanna back in 1945.
If you're playing the Hallmark Christmas movie drinking game, "Christmas Miracle" gets said often enough to give you a buzz, and "Christmas Spirit" will work if you want to get sloshed.
But the movie is charming and sweetly moving; there's no across-time romance after all, but the audience will get a full dose of romantic satisfaction; and all in all, the Hallmark Channel was right to choose this movie as the conclusion of its Thanksgiving weekend array of new Christmas movies.
Plus, there's a good dog and lots of people who love dogs, so that's a whole constituency who will be very happy with Journey Back to Christmas.
Another charmer that I quite enjoyed was Love You Like Christmas. As in so many other Hallmark movies this Christmas, the premise is that a high-powered businesswoman on her way to a Very Important Event (the wedding, in Denver, of an important client) gets stuck in a small Christmas-centered burg.
In this case, it's an Ohio town called Christmas Valley, and she's stuck because her lovely old Mustang breaks down and the mechanic can't get the needed parts for a few days.
The mechanic is a country songwriter who sings the tune "Love You Like Christmas," which is actually pretty good. But the real romance is between Maddie Duncan (Bonnie Somerville) and Kevin Tyler (Brennan Elliott). Tyler's family Christmas-tree farm is failing, but his daughter, Jo (Madison Brydges), is brave about it and it isn't going to wreck their lives.
All the same, Maddie is a marketing whiz, so she figures out a way to miraculously get the Tylers' Christmas trees sold before Christmas -- and at premium prices, so the farm is saved. This isn't a spoiler -- there is no possibility that the film could end any other way.
The transformative moment when Maddie decides to give up her high-paying New York job in order to come live in a small town because, you know, Christmas, doesn't work at all, but come on, we all knew it was going to happen so the writer didn't make a big deal out of justifying it.
What makes this movie charming is the acting. Bonnie Somerville brings off both the businesswoman and the romantic with sweet believability, and Madison Brydges as young Jo steals half the movie just by being a very good actress that you never catch "acting."
The plot doesn't require your full attention -- you can wrap Christmas presents with this one on -- but at the end you'll have a nice warm glow and be prepared to like everybody you see for ... well, hours, at least.
I completely hated the promos for My Christmas Love. Cynthia Baker (Meredith Hatner) is returning to her small-town home for the first time since her mother died earlier in the year, and because her unromantic sister Janet (Megan Park) is getting married, Cynthia brings along her best friend (and employee), Liam Pollok (Bobby Campo), to be her date to the wedding.
But then the gifts from the song "Twelve Days of Christmas" start showing up at the family's house -- a truly extravagant but well-planned romantic gesture -- and Cynthia tries to figure out which of the guys in her life is wooing her this way.
Here's why it works: The four guys she considers are all played by actors who could be a lead in any Christmas movie, so we kind of believe they're all possibilities ... until they aren't. Gregory Harrison as the widowed father, Tom Baker, is superb -- he misses his wife, but isn't going to spoil his daughters' Christmas (and wedding) with his private grief.
Meanwhile, the dynamic between the two sisters works really well. Cynthia is depressed by Janet's resistance to any kind of romance -- including her rebuff of her fiancé's attempt to get her to accept a romantic tropical honeymoon. And the more we see of Cynthia's and Liam's friendship, the more we hope that he's the one making such a big spectacular play for her heart (he isn't).
Bobby Campo and Meredith Hagner bring a kind of Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vibe to their roles -- no, I'm not exaggerating -- and if somebody was idiotic enough to try to remake You've Got Mail, they could do a lot worse than casting these two in the leads.
When you figure that most of these Hallmark Christmas movies star actors whose youth -- and best roles -- are well behind them, it's refreshing to have relative newcomers do such a splendid job. Because of the performances of the whole cast, this movie is far better than the premise would suggest.
And the script is up to the challenge -- when everything is sorted out, people have learned the things they needed to learn, the twelve-days gifts mean exactly the right thing, and the right couples end up happily together. In short, it ends as neatly sorted out as a Shakespearean comedy ... and with a wedding, no less.
And here's an extra fillip for me. The hideous artwork in 12 Gifts of Christmas is made even more disgraceful by the fact that in My Christmas Love, Liam, an illustrator, actually shows us credible illustrations and sketches. This proves -- to me, at least -- that if the producers actually care, there's room in a Hallmark movie budget to pay for good artwork so that the believability of an artistic character is not undermined.
Good job all around, folks. This is easily the best performed of this year's batch of Hallmark Christmas movies and I really hope that some casting directors pay attention to these actors and get them into bigger budget productions right away. Christmas movies don't have to be a burial ground for acting careers ...
The Christmas season is when church choirs can really go to town -- especially when Christmas or Christmas Eve fall on a Sunday. With a lot of grown-up children showing up for hometown Christmas celebrations -- bringing along the grandkids -- the choir gets to perform for the largest congregation of the year.
The problem is, do you perform all the old standard choir numbers that you've been doing for years, or do you search for new songs, or new arrangements, so that the Christmas Sunday service is full of fresh new music?
New music has a learning curve; how much time will the choir have for rehearsals? In our church, we have volunteer choirs, and don't really have enough strong voices to bring off big musical numbers.
So we set our sights on good, tuneful numbers that were challenging, but not so difficult that we couldn't do a good job with a modest amount of rehearsal. Did we achieve perfection? Of course not. But we prepared enjoyable music that delivered a strong Christian message to a gathering of the faithful.
The problem is that when you sing in the choir, the music doesn't go away just because the performance is over. Instead, it keeps pounding away in your head -- especially the passages you had to repeat most often to get them right, and the passages that were so mindlessly repetitive that, once imbedded in your mind, they won't ever leave.
I sing the tenor part, and we rarely have the melody, so what's going through my brain isn't even the song. It's just my part, which makes no musical sense without someone singing the melody.
The only defense is to surround myself with recorded music. So all the new Christmas albums I bought this year have been playing continuously whenever I worked at my computer. At this moment, John Oates is finishing up his surprisingly good rendition of "The Night Before Christmas." And Sarah McLachlan, Straight No Chaser, and Jennifer Nettles have kept delighting me with their wonderful renditions of old standards.
Of course, as soon as I turn off Windows Media Player and head for bed, with this column sent off to our fearless editor, the tenor part of our choir numbers will creep back in to take up brainspace all night long.... Thus are musicians punished for their music.
Tonight, my movie-director son-in-law and my movie-expert daughter watched a screener of Arrival with me. It was their first time watching it -- with two little girls, three-and-a-half and 18 months, they don't get out to the movie theaters much.
I was relieved to find that they thought as highly of Arrival as I did. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, and the three young actresses who play Amy's daughter Hannah, give superb performances in an unforgettably rich and nuanced script.
My daughter commented, at the end, that she thought this was the best science fiction movie she had ever seen. I could only agree. I know that most people think of "science fiction" as being space adventures -- Guardians of the Galaxy or the latest Star Wars or Star Trek flick. But Arrival is science fiction of the best sort, as deep and rich as the best of "literary" storytelling, while using the tropes of sci-fi to allow the story to go in otherwise impossible directions.
Science fiction is rarely taken seriously during award season, but it doesn't actually matter all that much, because we all know that the "Best Picture" Oscar or Golden Globe often bypasses the truly best movies of the year.
If you haven't seen Arrival, and you have the patience and brainspace to absorb an intellectually challenging, but deeply wise and moving, film experience, you owe it to yourself to see it while it's still on the big screen.
It's also quite possibly Amy Adams's best performance in her already-distinguished career.
Arrival is such a generic title that you may have figured that it's just Carl Sagan's Contact all over again. It isn't.
The aliens, the science, the human relationships, the story -- they are all so fresh and new that this movie can't be compared to others.
Remember 1998, the year of the two comet movies, Armageddon and Deep Impact? Armageddon was a thinly written, brain-dead-on-arrival stupidfest that was made entertaining only because it had Michael Bay as director and Bruce Willis as adventurer-in-chief. But Deep Impact, based on the same premise, was a deeply moving, intelligent, unforgettably brilliant sci-fi adventure.
Armageddon got, at best, a B- (in my opinion, a C-). While Deep Impact was a grade A movie.
And then, in 2012, using a similar premise -- the world is ending for astronomical reasons -- we got Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. There was no space stuff. Just a personal story about two people trying to find meaning and happiness in the last days of the human race. It was breathtakingly emotional and true.
Seeking a Friend didn't make Deep Impact look bad, the way Deep Impact destroyed Armageddon. On the contrary, it reminded me of how wonderful and emotional Deep Impact was. But Seeking a Friend showed that relationship-driven stories are the ones that matter most.
Now, many years after Carl Sagan's Contact and decades after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Arrival puts the others in perspective. When you see fully-invented aliens, with an astonishingly original language and a life-transforming offer to the human race, it can't help but make the mostly-spectacle predecessors look thin by comparison.
Stanley Kubrick tried to bowl us over with his brute-force, meaningless pseudo-psychedelic light show in 2001; Close Encounters tried to build up our awe without actually showing us anything believable or real. Contact was full of the kind of "religion" that you would expect an atheist like Sagan to come up with -- shallow, empty, not worthy of the efforts of a first-rate cast and crew.
Arrival has it all, at least for me. There's only one explosion and very little violence, but for me, there was no shortage of adventure, wonder, and awe. In the genre of first-contact movies, Arrival stands alone, an A+ movie in the way that Seeking a Friend for the End of the World surpasses even a solid A movie like Deep Impact.
In a weird way, Arrival begs to be compared to the ultimate art film, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. While Tree of Life requires that you metabolize like a bear in hibernation to watch it straight through, it's also brilliant and moving and wise. But it's aimed at a very small audience, excluding all others.
Arrival is like a faster-moving, clearer, more revelatory gloss on Tree of Life. It doesn't erase Malick's achievement, or even prove it unnecessary. I'm glad I saw both. But Arrival welcomes a much broader audience, though it definitely is not a popcorn movie for teenagers. I don't know many teenagers mature enough to know what's going on or why all the memories of the daughter even belong in the film.
So far this year, there have been some very good movies. And there are some with good reputations that I haven't had a chance to see yet.
But I haven't heard of any, in any film genre, that seems likely to compare with Arrival. I think it's the movie of the year.
And it may stand as the all-time best take on the grand old sci-fi theme of first contact with an alien species. Yeah, that's right -- even better than Cowboys & Aliens.
Over and over again, in Christmas movies the "Christmas spirit" is spoiled for a character because somebody close to them died.
But my observation is that while the memory of the passing of loved ones can be rekindled and made sharper by this season of nostalgia and remembered joy, memories of the dead are actually appropriate for the Christmas season.
Just as movies and tv shows and commercials often assume that "having fun" means laughing and grinning -- which is usually the opposite of the truth -- I think it's wrong to think that shedding tears in memory of lost loved ones is somehow "spoiling" the festive season.
Of course you don't impose your remembered grief on other people who don't share your feelings -- that's simply good manners. For instance, the fact that my father died in December shouldn't "spoil" my Christmas spirit -- on the contrary, reflecting on his life and my childhood in his care make Christmas even more meaningful.
It was my dad who, despite our lack of money in those pre-credit-card days, always managed to arrange the wrapped gifts on the living room floor so artfully that when we marched into the room, we didn't have to fake our awe at the sight. It always looked like a flood had fetched up all the gifts in the world, there in our living room.
And, of course, there was my dad with his camera, poised to take pictures of us as we entered the living room one by one. We got so impatient waiting for him to set up, and it was especially ridiculous when we had to go back out and enter again, because the camera missed all the shock and awe.
Yet ... we have those pictures now, of all of us at every age. And we carry inside us the standard our parents set, of Christmas as a brilliant performance of love and generosity, not just toward us kids, but among us, since many of those gifts were the ones we had bought or made for each other and for our parents.
How can I grieve for my father at Christmas, when so much of my idea of Christmas was his gift to us?
It's far harder for my wife, whose sister died last year just a few days before Christmas, after a struggle with cancer that had seemed to be going so well, until everything fell apart in only a few months. She died far too young, for though all her children had reached adulthood, she had no opportunity to enjoy them into her golden years.
She was my wife's childhood companion, as well as her partner in many enterprises in the many years she worked in our home as our executive assistant and the managing editor of our magazine. So yes, this Christmas has been hard for my wife and, to a somewhat lesser degree, for me, because Kathleen was so much a part of our lives, and her absence is still so keenly felt.
One should expect that about a twelfth of all the deaths in a year will take place in December, in the "holiday season." But when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, are we not celebrating his victory over death? Are we not affirming our faith in an afterlife in which old bonds can be renewed and shared lives can continue?
Even those who don't share that hopeful faith can still use Christmastime to celebrate the memories of loved ones who have died before us. Tears may fall -- indeed, they surely will fall -- but joyful memories can also be shared. I wonder if the "Christmas spirit" isn't composed as much out of our grief and loss as our joy and wonder.
Santa carries his bag of toys, but we also carry our burdens of loss and grief, and at Christmas time all those sacks and satchels are opened up and poured out, all those half-healed broken hearts, all the love that was placed there, are felt again as if the wound were fresh.
It has been my personal opinion, formed when I was young and borne out again and again by my experience as an adult, that grief is a part of joy, perhaps even the foundation of it, and that without loss there is no rejoicing at what we still have, and what comes to us new.
We buy gifts at Christmastime, but the greatest gifts are the kind acts we do for each other, which are kept as treasures. When we grieve for those we have lost, aren't those gifts the very things we remember most? We grieve because of the gifts of a life well lived; our mourning is a commemoration of the good things our lost loved ones gave to us.
So when you may think you have the least Christmas spirit, perhaps that's when you have the most. Maybe it's entirely within your power to make that so.
If that's the case, then let me wish you a joyful Christmas, as we dip into the well of love and loss that we all keep in our hearts, out of which we draw forth the light that shines out as kindness and generosity toward those who are still with us.
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
Over five hours of insight and advice.
Recorded live at Uncle Orson's Writing Class in Greensboro, NC.
Available exclusively at OSCStorycraft.com