Thursday, December 30, 2010

Finding Balance in 'The King's Speech'

The plot of The King's Speech is hardly surprising. If you study (or remember) history prior to WWII, you'll undoubtedly know of the royalty portrayed on screen. With a title like The King's Speech, the climactic moments aren't really all that much of a climax.

The performances meet the high expectations set for award winners and nominees. Colin Firth brilliantly creates a character in a role with very little physicality--beyond facial expression and a few scenes detailing the "mechanics" of solving the King's speech problem. Clearly, this isn't a holiday action film. Instead, the close-ups emphasize every element of the Prince's, later King's, ability to speak; the film's focus is the journey to allow this man a voice in his own life as much as in history.

What stands out beyond the expected, however, is the teeter-totter shifting of balance between Firth's Bertie/King George VI and everyone else. Many scenes cut between head shots of two characters, one on either side of the screen, with the intercut images providing a strange sense of balance. Most often this visual balance occurs in revelatory scenes between Bertie and Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Throughout the majority of the film, Firth is filmed to one side of the screen, creating a sense of being off balance, especially when the other side is "empty"--devoid of background image or another person. Only when he truly feels "kingly" does this balance change--and the King dominates the center of the screen.

At times, the camera follows Firth, such as when the King makes that long walk toward the mic, bringing the audience along in his wake. A fisheye lens captures the new King's viewpoint as he stands before an appraising crowd. The contrast between foggy London and dark, emerging figures presents interesting shades of gray and creates stark visuals. When you see the film (or see it again), pay attention to lighting and camera movement.

The camera angles, strategic lighting, and contrasts between classes, the lead characters, and light-dark effects are far more interesting than the expected story development, although Helena Bonham Carter shines as Elizabeth, later known as the Queen Mother. Again, the film's emphasis on her character hinges on line delivery and facial expression. A sly smile, quirk of an eyebrow, and witty comment all provide depth to what could have been a simple "stand by your man" role.

I went to this film to see outstanding performances, and I wasn't disappointed. The way the camera told the story, however, gave me something unexpectedly memorable.

All in the (Extended) Family

It's no secret that I like certain performers and tend to write about them. My mama taught me well that if I can't say something nice, not to say anything at all. Although that adage shouldn't apply to journalistic ethics, it can be applied to those topics I choose to research or review for entertainment. (If you've read my books, you know that I'm much more critical there than in blogs.) I've amended mama's adage so that it means if I can write something positive, I will. So--yes, I'm blog-biased--but here's a good example why.

During the current run of Aladdin, John Barrowman fell ill with flu and couldn't make some performances. His understudy, 18-year-old Greg Barrowman, stepped into Aladdin's pointy shoes and found himself in the spotlight. Perhaps this panto is really a non-gender-specific Cinderella story--or, as Broadway musicals and movies have shown through the decades, the understudy who gets the chance to star makes good and goes on to a fantastic career. Perhaps that will be the story of Greg Barrowman, a young singer encouraged to study his craft and polish his talent at the Glasgow Academy of Theatre Arts. As the Glasgow Evening Times points out, the understudy and the star are cousins.

Hmmm. Nepotism, you might be thinking. True, lots of talented young singers might wish their Cousin John had as much clout in the entertainment industry, but Greg has just been given a rare opportunity--now he has to make the most of it. (As well, if John didn't have the flu, this story about the older cousin mentoring the younger wouldn't have made the media.)

What strikes me most about today's article isn't that the understudy is related to the star, but that the star took an interest in a young talent and encouraged him to get to the point where he could be an understudy. And that, to me, is the moral of this story.

We often meet or know someone who is talented but may lack the encouragement to work toward a goal. I see it with some of my students, who shine in one area but don't know what to do with their skill or talent or how to network.

I once was one of those students who, in grad school, was given the opportunity to write a chapter in a textbook and was introduced to professional writers. I then was given the opportunity to co-author a book long before I wrote my own texts or branched into other areas of writing. I was too shy to interview someone until I was coached through the process a few times. I developed the confidence to introduce myself only because I once stood beside someone who showed me how to say hello politely and professionally.

My mama also taught me to be thankful for the opportunities I was given, but then to make sure I remembered how other people helped me when it was my turn to reach out a helping hand.

Now it's my time to mentor someone else--a student, a family member, a talented stranger. Whether I encourage with applause or a friendly comment after a performance, suggest a possible place to publish or write a positive review, or mention a name to someone looking for "fresh blood" to hire, it's my time to help the next generation to move forward.

We all can do that, even if we don't have high-level professional contacts. We can recognize that spark within a child and nurture that child's interest and potential. It's important that our families--biological or extended--are encouraged to try something new or potentially life changing.

I expect teachers or career counselors, for example, to mentor. I'm encouraged when those much more famous (and with higher socioeconomic status) do so. Would Greg Barrowman have his picture in the Glasgow Evening Times if he weren't standing next to his cousin? Maybe not yet. Would he be guest starring in a highly publicized panto playing in a huge venue? Probably not yet.

Looks like your mama brought you up right, too, John.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas is for the Kids

Stocking stuffers are a big deal in our household. On Christmas morning, the stockings get our full attention, long before that first cuppa. This year they overflowed onto the carpet, and even Elvis' doggie stocking was fully loaded. Mine contained a Star Trek combo pack of Gorn and Kirk, as well as plenty of chocolate. My sister-in-law's stocking had the ominous lumpiness of a coal-filled warning, but Santa rewarded her with four bags of her favorite, Rollos--opened so that each was a "lump" of chocolaty goodness. (I hear she was very good this past year.) Santa left a Star Trek film book for my brother among the bobbles and baubles. Those gifts set the theme for the "grownup" presents opened after breakfast.

Let's see--Among us were Frodo and Gandalf plushies, Rudolph with blinking red nose, Star Wars calendar (to remind someone of work deadlines; theoretically, we are of age), Gorn bobblehead, Star Trek book (with gift card for more SF books), a Kirk tree ornament, and a Doctor Who novel. We're looking for Boba Fett headgear on sale today (got to put those gift cards to good use).

My niece was wowed by daywear for work, slinkier outfits for evenings (and New Year's), perfume, and jewelry. See the pattern?

The afternoon morphed into evening with a marathon of retro TV and the occasional MST oldie (a highlight: Joel's skewering of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, that "classic" featuring a very young Pia Zadora). Of course, when we were kids the first time, we didn't get giggly while sipping 18-year-old whisky.

Maybe we've skipped that dreaded "middle" stage and landed gleefully into second childhood. Like a hobbit's second breakfast, this later opportunity helps us fill up the corners by reliving past glories, albeit with much glitzier tech, and savoring new treats. If this holiday weekend is for children, I'm very happy to be one of the kids.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Room at the Inn

For Christmas this year, my brother, sister-in-law, and niece made reservations well in advance so that we could share a holiday dinner at the Worthington Inn. That is our present, and I'm glad we opened it early! Maybe this historic inn is simply a good place for foodies to gather any time of the year, but it combined all the elements I'd stage for a film of a perfect family Christmas dinner.

The setting was ideal as we approached the Inn: snow on the ground (but not the pavement or roads), twinkling lights in windows, crispy air--and a dash into the warmth of the Inn. Then up the marble staircase, through a maze of serving rooms, to a corner table in the front dining hall, right next to a candle-bedecked fireplace. On cue, the server brought us wine and starters, leading to the best of Midwestern winter fare.

My non-meat-loving tastebuds (and I know fish is meat, which is why I'm now pescetarian instead of vegetarian) thrilled to butternut squash soup dressed as elegantly as we were. Salmon with farro, winter veggies, warm bread--and the warmth of Glenmorangie to send me back out to the snow.

I seldom take the time to "dine" anymore. I microwave or drive through. I seldom take the time for dinner that lasts all evening, allowing me to savor good conversation as much as fine wine. I far too often gather with friends and colleagues instead of making the trek to visit family (and despite our frequent email and mobile chats, that's just not the same). Last night was a Christmas feast in every sense.

I couldn't have cast our roles more perfectly. Smiling across the candles, we shared memories of holidays past as well as the trivia of everyday normalcy. We had time to really listen to each other and to catch up on everything that gets lost across the miles. Last night I made a mental movie that I'll replay for years to come.

I've learned to enjoy the moment, not morbidly, but diligently, to hold onto the special scenes that I realize won't ever come again--at least not exactly in the same way. Three years ago, after a lovely family Christmas, my mother died unexpectedly on our trip home. I never got to say goodbye.

This year I say as many cheery hellos as possible. Every moment together is a gift. Last night was special, and I'll forever be grateful there was room at the Inn.

Here's wishing you warmth and the wealth of family, friends, good food and drink, and a special place to remember this season.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Moods on a Rainy Saturday

This morning I walked out of the growing queue at the post office, impatient even before the door opened. It's a rainy Saturday in Ormond Beach, and I rather like the gray--not because I'm depressed or introspective Quiet. Settled. Content even. About as mentally removed from Christmas shoppers and grandparents anxious about mailing presents up north as I can possibly be.

So I placed my package (which would eventually be mailed in time to arrive in Indiana before Christmas) in the trunk and pulled my camera out of my bag. For months I've dutifully worked at home or traveled far from it, but I've missed walking along the muddy flats along the Tomoka River or riding under the canopy of water oaks. I felt the need to take in the bigger picture before I could focus on the details.

Although the tide was low, the egrets hunted the shallows close to the road. They're still wary, though, as well they should be. They don't live in a protected zone for nothing.

When I share photographs, I often hear the comment that I capture a world without people. Probably that says a lot about me. I often like the singular, of a subject, such as this egret in flight, or a moment that revealed something about the world from a different perspective. This shot is far from perfect, but I like its spontaneity.

Whether I photograph a single bird or a solitary stalk of swamp grass, I often like quiet isolation, the serenity in the alone. If I choose one shot that resonates with my mood this morning, it's this one.

Before long, the raindrops multiplied, and I headed back to the car. Refreshed. Cleansed. Contemplative.

Even a brief reacquaintance with the river clarifies my thoughts--and purpose, the salty tang of memory in the heavy air, tasty on my tongue. I don't write or photograph it as clearly as I should, but this tiny section of river and its often-unseen inhabitants continue to introduce me to a world I need to visit more often. Mystery might be revealed in murky details, and the ordinary gain beauty through illusion.

Friday, December 17, 2010

End-of-Year Thank Yous

Throughout the year my family and friends help me out in ways big and small, from the indignant reply on my behalf to a hug just because. They send me links to weird eBay listings or photos from our old hometown. They listen to my prattling about my latest SF obsession and don’t roll their eyes too often. They’re there for me when I need them, but they also give me enough space to be myself (which, I admit, sometimes requires a lot of space). I remember to thank them. After all, they’re my family and friends.

But I also need to thank several people who made my 2010 special by doing something unexpected and kind, going out of their way to make a connection with or for me. I don’t even know everyone’s name, but I remember your words or your face or your deed. In case I didn’t say it at the time, thank you for

Sending me homemade cookies and fudge (which I’ve been enjoying with my morning coffee)

Telling me you liked something I wrote

Sharing my words with others—with a post, an email, a friendly note

Sending me a YouTube link that made me laugh (and snort that morning coffee)

Inviting me to a room party! With pizza!

Smiling and coming over for a hug when you entered a crowded room

Shaking my hand on the last day of class

Opening the door when my arms were full

Guiding me to the best Welsh cakes ever

Stopping to fix my flat on a busy highway

Giving me your last throat lossenge

Meeting me for a lunch that turned into an all-day city tour

Squeezing my shoulder on a bad day

Pointing out a rainbow I didn’t see because I was looking down

Giving me a stamp when I was one short

Thank you. It may have been a small, inconsequential moment or act for you, but it meant a lot to me.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Carols and Pantos Past

I’m of an age when I’ve begun reminiscing more often and more loudly, especially at Christmas. Fortunately, my students seldom hear my “remember whens,” and my niece only rolls her eyes and makes a snarky comment now and again. That doesn’t keep me from flipping through my mental scrapbook this holiday season, especially when I read reviews about panto or Christmas plays.

Today I came across two reviews of Aladdin, the megaproduction—in 3D!—playing the SECC auditorium. One is highly positive (The Herald review), one not so much (The List review). Surprisingly, both reviewers paint an accurate picture of panto at its most enjoyable, if not its finest.

One reviewer praises the fun quotient—kids squealing, parents laughing, everyone getting in on the absurdity. Another faults lackluster special effects and a crashed computer—certainly nothing to look forward to—and concludes with reserved praise for the “valiantly adlibbing” star who, nonetheless, probably wished that the CGI Genie could grant a do-over.

Even without the fact that in this production Aladdin is played by effervescent John Barrowman, so the crowd undoubtedly has a great time—or that, if someone has to adlib during a live show, the audience and producers are lucky to have Barrowman on stage—imperfection is at least half the fun of panto. Granted, as an American, my experience with this traditional holiday entertainment is rather limited, but even with that acknowledged limitation, I wish I could see Aladdin—or any one of a number of other pantos currently playing in the U.K. and Canada.

I look forward to the “what if” factor of live entertainment. Who knows what might happen during any show? I might see the performance of a lifetime, or technology might fail and lead to some glorious improv. Sure, a 3D Genie might be fun, but isn’t it just as thrilling when a glitch forces the show to take a different turn? (Performers and producers may fervently hope) this misfire may only happen once, but the resulting uniqueness of that performance can make it most memorable (or even more entertaining) because it’s spontaneous.

In the ‘90s, I took some family and friends to Toronto for two live performances that, by critics’ standards, probably suffered the “crapness” factor discussed in today’s panto review, but that’s not what I remember about them. At that time Camilla Scott starred in Due South, one of my favorite TV series, so I suggested we see her in the holiday panto, Jack and the Beanstalk. The show was OK, but I remember it because we laughed aloud and reverted to being children for a few hours. We interacted with each other and the performers—something not normally encouraged within the confines of a magnificently venerable theatre. Panto brought out the kid in us in a perfectly acceptable way, and it would have been Scrooge-ish to point out Giant flaws.

Panto is one of the last bastions of public silliness and absurd storytelling that is more fun than it should logically be. It allows performers to be most outrageous and audiences to get in on the act. It's communal role playing at its most liberating, if not most dignified. I miss it—perhaps because I often have trouble letting go and laughing out loud. Panto, like the celebration of Christmas, can be magical and memorable for reasons far beyond production values.

My other memory from that trip is a frozen tableau of what Christmas used to be, and it helped me to understand my mother’s memories of Depression-era holidays. Mom and I attended a performance of the Huron Carole. (If you’re not familiar with it, for many years actor/singer Tom Jackson brought together Canadian artists for a national musical tour, with all proceeds going to charity.) As the event grew bigger and more popular each year, the venue improved. However, when we first saw it, the performance was held in an old building away from the glitzy theatre district. On that winter evening, the heat failed, and the balcony was cold enough for us to wear coats and gloves all evening. Fortunately, our hands warmed from applauding hours of song, jokes—as with panto, focused on local celebrities or politicians, and finally, the Huron Carole.

Even better, on the street, during a delay while someone worked on the theatre's furnace, we joined the Salvation Army in singing carols. The band and choir began, but before long, the waiting audience sang along, always loudly, sometimes on key. Standing on a snowy street corner in Toronto, singing carols with dozens of strangers—that’s a memory to keep.

The local food bank was the recipient of that evening’s proceeds, and everyone was encouraged not just to donate cash, but to bring canned food. Building a tin mountain and tossing coins in the kettle reminded my mother of Christmases long ago and far away. Technically, this wasn’t a perfect evening. Temps were cold outside and in, the concert was delayed, and the venue wasn’t posh, but it was one of our best mother-daughter outings ever.

I’ve often said that my happiest moments have been either in a theatre or a bookshop, so it’s fitting that some of my favorite memories of public Christmas celebrations involve theatres and the joy of live performance. Sure, it’s fantastic when everything works as it should and the quality of the production merits the price of a ticket, but sometimes it’s even more special when the heat goes out, the Giant misses his mark, or the Genie decides to stay home.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Best/Worst Songs of Christmas

Earlier this month my brother shared his picks for the best “worst” Christmas songs ever. He and a friend were making their list and checking it far more than was probably healthy. As often happens when my brother and I chat, something from our conversation sticks in my mind, kind of like a splinter that gets worried but not removed. I entirely blame my brother for my misspent morning tracking down several favorites from my secular Christmas list—ghosts of Christmas past, if you will. These tunes have haunted me for a few days, so I decided to track them down and share.

If you like films, you’ve probably had memorable encounters with Love Actually, About a Boy, and Melvin and Howard. If you like television or have a thing for Mounties, you probably have spent an evening or two being charmed by Paul Gross’ Constable Benton Fraser (Due South). What you may not recall quite so easily are the highly entertaining holiday songs associated with these films or performers.

In 1980, Melvin and Howard hypothesized the later life of Howard Hughes, with some standout performances by Paul Le Mat, Jason Robards, and Mary Steenburgen, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress. The film is worth a second look, especially if you weren’t around for a first look 30 years ago, but for those purely seeking holiday cheer, YouTube comes to the rescue:

“Santa’s Souped Up Sleigh” somehow was overlooked by Oscar, but not by YouTube fans of Paul Le Mat, who, as Melvin, manages to get Jason Robard’s Howard to sing along. The rendition may not be award worthy, but the lyrics are well worth the three minutes of your life required to play the scene from YouTube.

Similar in theme but with a bit more critical acclaim is About a Boy’s “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” featuring lyrics such as

Look who's coming 'round the bend,
It's Santa and his reindeer friends,
And they've got the right of way,
It's Santa's super sleigh!

About a Boy (2002) is a fantastic film that is alternately tragic and heartwarming, poignant and funny, as the lives of these misfit characters unfold and reconnect. Watch it on a snowy afternoon with your friends, and if that happens during the holidays, join in for the chorus.

Hugh Grant winningly illustrates our universal love/horror relationship with many popular holiday songs. Like eggnog going slightly round the bend or fruit cake that won’t die (or be eaten even by less-than-picky squirrels foraging in winter), these songs combine the best of loving intentions with the most memorable of misguided results.

In the mid- to late ‘90s I spent a lot of time in Toronto, some of it watching Due South be filmed on city streets or attending RCW 139 fan conventions. As a long-time Paul Gross fan, I had to smile when I came across my special edition DVD of “Santa Drives a Pickup.” Fortunately, YouTube again comes through with a music video to share. If your idea of singing Mounties extends only to Nelson Eddy (thanks for the reminder, Celine Dion’s twins), Paul Gross and David Keeley easily supplant that image with a holiday rendition that quickly may become your favorite seasonal music video. It’s once again become mine:

Last, but certainly not least, in volume or quality, is Bill Nighy-as-Billy-Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around” from 2003’s Love Actually, now officially my favorite holiday film. It’s a Wonderful Life became a family tradition, thanks to my brother and sister-in-law, and The Snowman thrilled us on Christmas mornings when my niece was much younger, but Love Actually is my feel-good film when I need a smile or fear “love” actually fails to live up to its hype. I adore Bill Nighy on general principle, and “Christmas Is All Around” is part of my annual playlist. This soundtrack is easy to find, but if you want a quick reminder between trips to the mall, listen to

without video or watch

The roots of family holiday traditions run deeply through our memories, and they can help culturally define us. Without minimizing the serious religious undercurrent to our highly secular celebrations, I still find that my kitschy Christmas traditions are the ones I bring out for a good laugh. They are a memento of happy Christmases, reminders of the songs, laughter, and general weirdness that binds families and friends.

So this morning when I started searching for the sounds of Christmas past, I also dusted off more than the old DVD collection. I remember first seeing Love Actually in a theatre with my mom, then loudly shower-singing “All I Want for Christmas” every morning of the holiday I thought I’d found true love, and, a season or two later, bopping with Billy Mack during a solitary Christmas drive. I recall dragging my family and friends to snowy Toronto to see the Huron Carole more than once and, during one trip, bumping into Paul Gross and finding out I wasn’t the only fangirl in my circle. I think about discovering a grownup interest in film shared between siblings just becoming adults, and the mutually anticipated holiday film seasons that followed.

Maybe these songs and their links to films or TV series remind me that, whether I’m sending best wishes by phone or helping to stuff stockings before the fire on December 24, Christmas is about family. They may be our birth families or the ones we create; they may be shiny and excitingly new or the fondly conjured spirits of Christmases past. ‘Tis the season to remember that laughter and love live forever.

So will these songs, or others like them—a hearty ho ho ho for our Christmas present, and that may be one of the best gifts of all.