“A Christmas Carol” turns 175

Lots of people took notice. 

Dickens, of course, wrote it to make money. He was in debt to his publisher and needed a hit. That’s how life works.

Here’s the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Was there anyone as good at beginning a novel as Dickens?

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Here’s a nice article about its covers through the years. The original cover was pretty meh:

538’s analysis of “Love, Actually”

I realize that many of you rely on me for my annual insights into Love, Actually, the Christmas film that has ruined so many lives. This year I just wanted to point folks to 538’s “definitive analysis” of what it calls “the greatest Christmas movie of all time”. (This appeared last year, and maybe they didn’t have time to include Bad Santa 2 in their thinking.)

The first part of the article is standard statistical analysis of the actors–whose movies have made the most money since Love, Actually (Liam Neeson) and whose movies have the highest IMDB rating (Alan Rickman).

The authors then do a “network analysis” of the movie. It looks like this:

And they analyze how much time characters spend talking to other characters. The authors’ conclusion: Laura Linney’s character is the linchpin of the movie.

Linney’s character is the one that truly straddles the two Londons. In a movie stuffed with redundant plots and permutations of the same stereotypes, there’s no character quite like her. If you find yourself forced to Grinch through a viewing of “Love Actually” this holiday season, treasure Laura Linney — she’s a bona fide Christmas miracle.

Good lord. There are many reason to watch (parts of) Love, Actually. The simpering Laura Linney character is not one of them. Statistical analysis does not always lead to aesthetic insight.

I will report back later on Bad Santa 2, which we’ve been saving up for this holiday season.

The best way to watch “Love Actually”

You guys don’t care about John Donne.  The first Facebook comment about my previous post was: “But what about Love Actually?”  Philistines.

Assuming that one has to watch “Love Actually” every year at this time, and most of us do, whether we want to or not, how does one survive the ordeal?  The answer, we have decided, is to fast-forward through the awful parts.  For example, none of this Liam Neeson and his stepson crap:

Skip the boring unfunny porn-star-stand-in scenes with Martin Freeman:

And most especially ax the dreary Laura Linney and her crazy brother subplot:

What you’re left with are the Hugh Grant scenes, which are pretty funny; the Colin Firth scenes, which are moderately funny; the Keira Knightley scenes (which aren’t funny but, you know, Keira Knightley); the Brit-goes-to-America scenes, which are stupid but kind of funny; and the Alan Rickman/Emma Thompson scenes — because, you know, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson.  Also the Rowan Atkinson scene, which is priceless.

This results in a tolerable movie that is less than 90 minutes long.

I still don’t know how to cope with my wife pointing out all the many unbelievable things that happen in the course of those 90 minutes: “Alan Rickman would never bring the necklace for his girlfriend home where Emma Thompson can find it.”  “The Prime Minister would never come through Heathrow arrivals with everyone else.”  “No school would have a Christmas play on Christmas Eve.”

I know all this.  It’s your idea to watch the thing.  Every year.  It doesn’t become more plausible with the passage of time.

Now I’ll shut up until next year.

Update: No, I won’t shut up.  Turns out that in my general befuddlement I forgot the best part of the movie: the Bill Nighy aging pop-star subplot.  You can actually skip everything else (except maybe Keira Knightley) and just watch that.  Here’s my favorite quote from Billy Mack:

Hiya kids. Here is an important message from your Uncle Bill. Don’t buy drugs. Become a pop star, and they give you them for free!

And his final line to his manager on Christmas Eve: “Now let’s get pissed and watch porn.”

Always good advice!

Modern Christmas

Here are a bunch of folks in our backyard (in 60-degree weather) trying to fling tennis balls and Nerf footballs and whatnot, trying to free a drone that got stuck in the top of our tree:

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Here is the drone itself, hanging up above us like the star of Bethlehem:

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Note the black “Bah Humbug” Santa hat that my son is wearing.

We didn’t manage to get the drone down, but we’re pretty sure a good wind will free it.  So all is not lost.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without a post about “Love Actually”

See here and here and here for examples in this genre.

The most tear-jerky part of Love Actually is its ending, a sequence of joyous reunions at Heathrow’s International Arrivals Terminal, set to the Beach Boys’ glorious “God Only Knows”.   Like so:

So, we had a joyous reunion with our son the other day at the International Arrivals Terminal of Boston’s Logan Airport, coming home to the States after a couple of years in the Middle East.  And my lovely wife got it in her head that this arrival should also be accompanied by the “God Only Knows” soundtrack, playing it on a speaker attached to her iPhone.

This was a pretty good idea.  Except, you know, for the part where her son would hate it.  He goes over and hugs her, and at the same time disconnects the cord, stopping the soundtrack.  And here is the photographic record of the wonderful reunion, my son beaming at the camera and his mother desperately trying to figure out how to get the music playing again:

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No matter — life is better than any movie.  Welcome home, James!  And happy holidays, everyone.

The New York Times proclaims “Love, Actually” a Christmas classic

I guess this is my annual Love, Actually post.  The New York Times  ran an article recently contemplating which recent holiday movies were classics.  And Love, Actually makes the cut:

The director Richard Curtis fills the cast with nearly every great British actor, and they make even ridiculous moments — Mr. Grant’s dancing to the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (for My Love)” through 10 Downing Street — seem like master classes.

Thanks to the way-back machine that is the Internet, we can see what the Times had to say about the film back in 2003, when it first came out.  You don’t see reviews of major movies much worse than this one:

”Love Actually” is a patchwork of contrived naughtiness and forced pathos, ending as it began, with hugging and kissing at the airport (where returning passengers are perhaps expressing their relief at being delivered from an in-flight movie like this one). The loose ends are neatly tied up, as they are when you seal a bag of garbage — or if you prefer, rubbish.

Yikes. (Rotten Tomatoes gives the movie a 63%, slightly over the line from rottenness. Audiences like it much better, coming in at 73%.)

Speaking of hugging and kissing at the airport, the latest episode of The New Girl features the cast at the airport heading to various places for the holidays. It plays a cover of “God Only Knows” at one point as it cuts from character to character, clearly a reference to the soundtrack of Love, Actually.  Does a movie become a classic when a sitcom pays homage to it?

Christmas Eve in the world of “Dover Beach”

In this excerpt from my novel Dover Beach, the bookish would-be private eye Walter Sands spends Christmas Eve alone in a grim London hotel room, where he is haunted by memories of Christmases past.  Things have not always gone well for him in the bleak post-apocalyptic world he inhabits.

The e-book of Dover Beach is still free on Amazon, for some reason.  Which is a pretty good deal, when you come to think of it.  It is ranked #21 among technothrillers, for some reason.  It is not a technothriller; technothrillers don’t quote Dickens, at least not this liberally:

I took a bath. I reread the newspaper. I reread the Gideon Bible. I stared out the frosted window of my dreary room and gazed at the ruddy faces passing by in the dark, alien world. And I waited for a visitor.

It was the Ghost of Christmas Past. I knew he would come. He always came, so why should he make an exception now that I was in London, in his hometown?

“Rise, and walk with me!”

There was no refusing him, of course. Some nights, perhaps, but not on Christmas Eve.

Through the window, across the frigid London sky, over the fierce, churning ocean—to the awful abode of memories, still alive, still waiting to claim me…

“Why, it’s old Fezziwig!”

Not likely. It was a solemn, gaunt man—too gaunt, far too DOVER-BEACH-COVER1Lsolemn—his bony hand resting on my shoulder, light as a leaf. I was warm—the wood stove was kept well filled. But I was hungry. Always hungry. The man’s eyes glittered, reflecting the oil lamp’s flickering flame. “Tomorrow is Christmas,” the man said. “Least, Mrs. Simpkins says so. I’ve kinda lost track myself. Thing is, well, there’s nuthin’ to give you. I’ve tried—you’ve seen how I’ve tried, haven’t you? But everything’s gone. The entire world is gone. Oh, I’m so sorry.”

The man’s glittering eyes turned liquid and overflowed, wetting his leathery skin, his gray beard. His hand moved down onto my back and pulled me toward him. He held me against his chest, and I heard the ka-thump ka-thump of his heart beneath the frayed flannel shirt. The intensity of the sound scared me. The sudden strength of the hand scared me. I stayed there, listening, and eventually the hand loosened its grip, and I stepped back. The man looked at me—looking (I know now) for forgiveness, and if not forgiveness, at least some sort of understanding. But he was looking for something I was far too young to offer.

“Daddy,” I said, “what’s Christmas?”

“These are but shadows of things that have been,” said the Ghost.

“That’s swell,” I said. “That’s really swell.”

The Spirit pulled me along.

And I was chopping wood outside a familiar, broken-down barn. I was sweating, despite the cold, and my arms ached. A woman came out of the barn, carrying a scrawny chicken she had just killed. Her face was lined and wind-burned, her body shapeless under a heavy coat. She stopped and looked at me, and I kept on chopping. “Walter,” she said, “things is tough.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. I kept on chopping.

“Mr. Simpkins says we’ll have to leave here pretty soon if things don’t get better. I don’t know what we’ll do if we leave, where we’ll go, but there’s got to be someplace better.”

“I expect,” I said. I put another log on the block.

“But we’ll take care of you, Walter. We made a promise, and no matter how hard things get, we keep our promises. You understand?”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”

The woman nodded, satisfied. “Christmas is coming, but I’m afraid there won’t be any gifts. We can have a tree, though. You like them old ornaments, right? We can make the place real festive. Won’t that be nice?”

I split the log neatly. “Very nice,” I said. “Much obliged.”

The woman nodded some more. Chicken blood dripped onto the snow. “It’s the spirit that counts, that’s what I always say. We don’t have much in the way of things anymore, but we still have the spirit, don’t we, Walter?”

“Yes, ma’am. We still have the spirit.”

The woman smiled and went inside. I picked up another log and put it on the block.

“Spirit,” I said, “show me no more! Conduct me home. Why do you delight to torture me?”

“One shadow more!” exclaimed the Ghost.

“No more!” I cried. “No more. I don’t wish to see it. Show me no more!”

But the relentless Ghost pinioned me in both his arms, and forced me to observe what happened next.

The three of us were sitting in the parlor that first year together, and Stretch was expounding. “If we’re going to preserve our civilization, we have to preserve its rituals. Rituals are what bind us together. They shelter us from the terror of loneliness and death. They give life meaning and shape.”

“Christmas sucks,” I said.

Gwen smiled.

“It isn’t Christmas that sucks,” Stretch explained earnestly, “it’s your experience of Christmas. That’s why it’s so important to create our own experiences—to overcome those other experiences, to connect with the best of the old civilization, to keep us alive. Don’t you see?”

Yeah, I saw.

And then it was Christmas Eve. The pine boughs had been strewn, the popcorn strung, the fire roared wastefully; and at midnight we all kissed and exchanged presents that we couldn’t afford.

I gave Gwen a typewriter I had bought at the Salvage Market.

Gwen gave me a book from Art’s special stock. It was called The Maltese Falcon.

“See?” Stretch said. “Isn’t this good? Isn’t this the way life should be lived?”

And then later, lying upstairs in each other’s arms. “What do you think of Christmas?” I asked Gwen. “Is Stretch right?”

“I think,” she said, “that I have never been happier in my life.”

“Spirit,” I said, in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”

“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the Ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”

“Remove me!” I exclaimed. “I cannot bear it!”

He let me go finally—back to my bleak hotel room, back to my guilt, back to this present that I had so longed for all my life—while he went off, presumably, to torture some other undeserving soul. No other ghosts came to call—I didn’t expect any—and eventually I drifted off to a tense and restless sleep.

When I awoke it was Christmas Day.