Friday, December 21, 2007

Have Yourself a Black-and-White Christmas

With the Cranky Reviewer™ being on a semi-permanent hiatus, I decided to go ahead and make my own recommendations this year for some holiday-specific films that have become part of my own holiday tradition. Also, this is a chance for Woundup readers to realize that I don't always use this platform to grouse and complain. It only seems that way.

We have a box. It's about two-thirds the size of a document archive box. It holds our holiday collection of videos and DVDs that we watch every year, and we continually add to it. Eventually I hope to either copy our video cassettes to DVD or replace them with DVD copies, but that may take time. Anyway, I want to focus on some of my favorites today, and they all have one thing in common: they were all shot in black-and-white.

I'm not a fan of colorization. I think it's okay to want to see one once in a while just to remind ourselves that life before the 50's did have color. My mother seems to remember living life in color, so I guess that's historically accurate. But I enjoy black-and-white films precisely because they lend themselves to a historical view of the world. As an amateur historian of sorts, I appreciate that quality. The stories around which these films were built are of the variety that transcend the medium and allow the viewer to escape into a world of our choosing. So, having introduced the topic thus, let me regale you with

Uncle Woody's Black-and-White Holiday Picks

The Bells of St. Mary's (1945)
This is actually a sequel to "Going My Way," the film in which Bing Crosby created the role of Father Timothy O'Malley, and for which he won his Best Actor Oscar. I haven't actually seen "Going My Way," but I can now since it appears on a double-header DVD with "Holiday Inn" (which see below). "St. Mary's" pits the good Father against Sister Benedict, who runs the church's parish school. Sister Benedict is played brilliantly by Ingrid Bergman, and Crosby is his affable best as Father O'Malley.

Plot-wise the film is completely predictable, but of the feel-good variety that I always appreciate. O'Malley and Benedict clash over the fate of the school. O'Malley has been asked to make a recommendation as to whether to close the school, while Sister Benedict fiercely defends the school at the same time she dreams of moving into a nice, modern building being constructed next door.

This isn't really a Christmas movie, per se, but Christmas factors heavily in the story. The kicker here is a wonderful — schmaltzy, even — version of the Nativity staged by the school's kindergartners and first-graders, with humorous results.

Holiday Inn (1942)
Here's one I've only just seen for the first time ever this year. It's a typical story of entertainers behind the scenes and stars Crosby with Fred Astaire. They compete for the art and for the girl. As with "St. Mary's," it's not truly a Christmas film. "Holiday Inn" derives its name from the idea that the inn is only open on holidays throughout the year, including Lincoln's and Washington's birthdays (back when they were celebrated separately), Valentine's Day, and July 4th. Irving Berlin provides his usual snappy numbers for each holiday, and provides plenty of fodder for Bing and Fred to ply their trade.

One note: stories about entertainers always crack me up when it comes to their relationships with the opposite sex. Astaire's character in particular falls "in love" with whichever girl makes the best dance partner, even if it's at the expense of Crosby's love life. This is typical Hollywood faire for the period, and makes for some entertaining moments.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Arguably the king of holiday movies. I say arguably, because I believe Mrs. Woody would indeed argue the point with me. Her all-time fave is "Miracle on 34th Street" (coming up next!), and I certainly respect her opinion on that. For me, however, the combination of Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Frank Capra is nearly unbeatable. This story has been told so many times in so many ways over the ensuing years. None of them, however, really holds a flame next to Capra's masterpiece. Stewart is simply perfect as the small-town do-gooder George Bailey who finds himself trapped in a provincial existence. At his moment of greatest crisis his guardian angel intervenes with spectacular result.

This movie never, and I mean never fails to choke me up in the end. I've seen this I don't know how many times over the years, and I can honestly say I have nearly memorized every line of dialogue in the film. Yet every year we reach the part where George's brother says, "To my big brother George, the richest man in town!" and I find myself holding back the tears. And I never cry. Well, rarely, anyway.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
I should make Mrs. Woody write this review, really. This is the movie that begins our holiday season every year. We watch this movie on Thanksgiving evening, so it ties in not only with Christmas, but with the Macy's Holiday Parade which we watch in the morning. Given that this is Mrs. Woody's personal favorite, I also enjoy it, and certainly don't mind recommending it. The overarching plot revolves around one man's claim to being the real Santa Clause, and being subjected to a hearing that could result in his being committed to a mental institution. Underneath it all is a story of unconditional love and the true spirit of Christmas. It also features a very precocious Natalie Wood years before she became a stunning bombshell of an actress.

Taken altogether, "Miracle" is another one of those films that can catch me off-guard and find me holding back a tear or two.

The Bishop's Wife (1947)
Cary Grant, David Niven, and Loretta Young. Not to mention several cameos by some of the best character actors in the business, including Elsa Lanchester, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley. This film has also been remade a number of times, most notably by Whitney Houston several years ago, but again the original is the gold-medal standard. I enjoy this film for three reasons. Grant (another angel character) is at the top of his game in this film. His chemistry with the innocent and unsuspecting Young as the wife of an Episcopalian Bishop is marvellous, but his more adversarial relationship with Niven's Bishop character is even better. The results are often funny, frequently poignant, and altogether wonderful. The second thing I enjoy about this film is the underlying current of faith and hope. Man finds himself feeling short-changed in life, until faith creeps in and reminds him that life can be wonderful and fulfilling if only we let it. Finally, the Christmas sermon that Grant writes on behalf of his harried Bishop is terrific. It's a gentle reminder that the best gift of Christmas has always been and will always be the Babe of Bethlehem.

So that's it. These are the films that I watch around this time of year, for what it's worth. There are others that I have yet to watch, like "Christmas in Connecticut," for example. Or "A Christmas Wish" which stars both Jimmy Durante and a squirrel. So next year's list may have to be modified. You may also notice that I don't list any of the "A Christmas Carol" versions in black-and-white. I think we only have one home-taped version (the 1938 version, if memory serves). However, Patrick Stewart's interpretation of the classic is by far my favorite. Stewart put together a strong ensemble for his televised version in 1997, and I watch it every year. We first heard about his annual readings of the Dickens story and found a CD audio version that we listened to on a trip several years ago. When his televised version came out we watched it and fell in love with it. Hence I have no black-and-white "Carols" on my list.

Feel free to tell me what your personal Christmas favorites are, whether color or black-and-white. I don't dare go into my entire list; there isn't enough room without your having to scroll down for all eternity. Whatever you do, take the time to enjoy some good entertainment this holiday season. Attend a concert. Go to Midnight Mass, if that's your tradition. Tomorrow night Mrs. Woody and I take the Woodyettes to see a live version of "The Nutcracker."

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Traditional Trouble

I have voiced my disagreements with the Archbishop of Canterbury in the past, in particular for his voiced support of something I called "designer scriptures." I also believe he has personally done little to understand or even attempt to assuage the problems of the Episcopalian church in this country, and that has led to its current internal struggles to remain a cohesive body of believers.

For all that, the Telegraph in London began its report of an interview held with the Anglican prelate with this misleading headline:
Archbishop says nativity 'a legend'
It's the kind of headline that is designed to get readers' blood boiling, and mine went pretty quickly into a full roil until I read the actual article. In the interview, Dr. Williams actually does a decent job of separating scriptural fact from the traditional views held of the Nativity by millions of Christians world-wide. (Note: there's a link to the actual transcript in the article, and it's worth a read.)

The article leads off with the concept of the Three Wise Men. Traditionally, the Wise Men (always three as depicted through the centuries) were kings or magi who travelled from eastern countries to bring their gifts of incense, myrrh and gold to the baby Jesus. Scripturally there are problems with this romanticized view, and Dr. Williams was pointing out those inconsistencies. Firstly, the scriptures say nothing about the number of wise men who sought out the infant. The number three merely corresponds with the three gifts mentioned in scripture. The wise men depicted as kings were likely the invention of artists who wanted to aggrandize the birth of the Savior, thus introducing artistic license into the story of the Nativity.

It is also a misconception to depict the Kings surrounding the infant. Jesus was, by the time the wise men arrived, already a toddler. If memory serves, the family did not remain long in Bethlehem. They had probably relocated to Nazareth by the time of the visit from the wise men, and then moved hastily to Egypt after Joseph was divinely informed that Herod wanted to kill all the male children who were around the Savior's age.

Unfortunately, when your statements are summarized by a reporter, that reporter's world-view is the baseline assumption. For that reason we see this line in a later paragraph:
The Archbishop went on to dispel other details of the Christmas story.
No, I'm afraid the Archbishop did no such thing. What he did, precisely, was attempt to dispel the traditions surrounding the story and remind people that the scriptural record is scant on detail.

For example, even without our latter-day revelation indicating that the Savior was in fact born in April, it has always seemed highly unlikely to me that this story took place in the winter. I could never understand what shepherds were doing out in those fields in freezing conditions (does it even snow in that part of the Holy Land? I have no clue!) to begin with. The story makes much more sense when it plays out in the springtime. The winterization of Christmas was the result of deciding to celebrate this event during the old pagan Winter Festival celebrations, when bored pagans around the world found time to break the winter monotony. Roman officials decided to keep the festival going after adopting Christianity, but changed the theme so as not to anger the Church. A wise move, but one destined to confuse large portions of believers for centuries to come.

True believers, however, with or without the traditions that have long embellished this story, understand the true significance of the Savior's birth. The Redeemer of the world and Only Begotten of the Father was born in the humblest of circumstances. His earthly life and ministry would reflect that humility. His atonement and ultimate sacrifice would also be lowly; dying much the same way as countless common criminals of that day died. We see the baby in a stable, and aspire to live as He did. We are grateful, more than we can ever express, that He chose to come and live among us so that we might some day return and live with Him.

I don't agree with everything the Archbishop says or teaches, but I believe that he defended the original Nativity quite nicely. It is not a legend, it's just a victim of embellishment by well-meaning, if misguided, people.

Merry Christmas, traditional or otherwise!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Homeschoolers For [TBD]

Interesting lead-in from Drudge today: "HUCKABEE DRAWS SUPPORT OF HOME-SCHOOL FAMILIES..." — with one of his dead-end links back to the Report. It's frustrating when Drudge does that, but hardly insurmountable to someone with any sort of Googling skills. I believe the article he meant to link was this one from the Des Moines Register.

I think the article overstates the support Huckabee is getting from homeschoolers as being somehow indicative of how homeschoolers as a national group may vote in the primaries. As I've mentioned before, homeschoolers as a group are about the least organized bunch of people I know, and I just can't get excited about the fact that Huckabee has seemingly overwhelming support from evangelical homeschoolers in Iowa. If the Constitution included a clause stating that homeschoolers must be able to organize more than an occasional field trip to a local museum once a month, we would fail the constitutional test. We're nice people, but our group mentality doesn't extend too far outside our immediate families. This is part of the reason why we don't appreciate public school. A very small part, but there you have it.

But back to Huck. A large part of the evangelical fervor over Rev. Huck is an endorsement coming from no less a personage than Michael Farris, one of the founders of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA). As an evangelical Christian himself, Mr. Farris carries a lot of editorial weight with those who hold similar beliefs. This is fine, and I certainly don't begrudge these fine people their choice of candidate. I just don't happen to agree with them, and I particularly don't agree with Mr. Farris' evaluation of Huckabee the Candidate.

Let me first say that Huckabee may very well be as sincerely Christian as he claims to be. Certainly he's put in the study (even if his claim to a "theological degree" may be somewhat overstated) and has the license to preach, so to speak. Clearly his political positions reflect a certain evangelical flavor and coloring, to the point of being downright alarming to non-evangelicals across the country. I have no doubt that he truly believes himself to be the only logical choice for Christians in this coming election.

Except that he's not. Not for this Christian, at any rate.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the recent revelations about Huckabee's time as Governor of Arkansas are hardly worthy of an unqualified statement of support from most conservative points of view. His tax record alone gives serious pause, as do the most recent allegations that significant political supporters (read: financiers) were given high level positions in his administration.

Michael Farris tries to make the case that support for Huckabee will somehow protect homeschoolers from Democrat Candidate-Presumed Hillary Clinton. Even if it were true that Huckabee's position on homeschooling were the best of any candidate in the field (I've not heard about this issue from any other candidate), I'm still not convinced that Huckabee has what it takes to defeat Clinton in the general election. In fact, whoever the nominee is in 2008, they will likely turn the attack machinery of the DNC fully on the Republican and I believe Huckabee would be shredded in short order. Even if he somehow survives the attacks, modern politics is all about perception, and any perceived weakness in his campaign at a general level would guarantee a Democrat win in November.

Further to Farris' point, homeschool isn't truly a national issue anyway. Political control of education is felt far more at the state level than the national level. If you've paid any attention to this blog lately, you'll know how I feel about the national record in education policy. The NEA — not the Bush administration — runs education policy in this country, and the effects have been devastating. For homeschoolers, however, the greater fight for control over their right to educate their children at home remains with state and local boards of public instruction. Federal policy is about money and who gets it. They could care less whether we're teaching our kids at home; they have bigger fish to fry. At a state level, however, where federal money is converted into wasteful local education budgets, homeschoolers are a continual sore-spot. We thrive against all the commonly accepted educational formulae. Our kids excel in many academic arenas, and it couldn't gall professional educators more.

It is not Hillary that homeschoolers fear in 2008. It is any state or local education official who continues to harangue homeschoolers for being outlaws that we fear most. Huckabee, whatever his other virtues may be, will not have any control over that fight, nor will any future President of the United States.

I suspect that a large portion of the support Huckabee is garnering from Iowa homeschoolers is loyalty from a large contingent of evangelicals who have similar beliefs to his. They're just certain that the rest of the country is "out to get him." This circling of the wagons is not a surprising reaction to what we have learned about Huckabee. Still, it worries me that they end up supporting the man for the wrong reasons, and aren't taking a harder look at someone who ought to be appear to be "too good to be true."

If you want to draw an allegory with Mitt Romney and LDS support, go ahead. As I've mentioned before, I'm not firmly on the Romney bandwagon at this point. I'm not on anyone's bandwagon yet simply because I'm waiting for all these insipid non-debates to dry up before I try to form an opinion. I mean, really, has any single debate of this season changed your opinion of any candidate for the better? Me, neither.

So don't get too excited about your support from homeschoolers, Mike. They're good people, their hearts are in the right place, and they even make terrific campaign volunteers. But unless they can miraculously organize a national coalition of evangelical homeschoolers to act as a lobby, their message will be limited in scope.

Kinda like mine.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Why Huckabee Can't Win

Mike Huckabee wants so badly to be right. Unfortunately, his reflexes as an evangelical preacher are overpowering his political instincts and he's picking on the wrong target.

Waiting until the run-up to the Iowa and New Hampshire votes, Huckabee has unleashed attacks — ranging from subtle to "in yo' face, Dude" — against one particular religion. It happens to be a religion that he can ill afford to alienate. There are nearly six million of us in this country, and we're not likely to vote for anyone who considers us to be "fringe" voters.

Of course, this is not to say that all six million of us will vote intelligently, either. We do have Democrats in the church, after all.

Beyond that, there's the problem of not whether, but how candidates alienate voters. Democratic candidates go out of their way to alienate Republicans (and vice versa) simply based on political alignment. In other words, for as long as Democrats insist on foisting such things as abortion and gay "rights" on us, I will never vote Democrat. Just as Democrats will never vote Republican for as long as we insist on protecting our borders or standing up to school-yard bullies. Such is the natural order of things.

However, when candidates step out of that political arena and directly attack a voter's personal (by which I mean "none of your business" personal) beliefs, they cross a heavily drawn line and there can be no redemption in the mind of that voter. This is Huckabee's sin, and he is now politically irredeemable. Oh, he may have the rabid support of a cluster of Southern Baptists on this attack, but the fallout will be considerable. Given the revelations of his record as Governor of Arkansas ("The Clinton State"), coupled with his deep, abiding bias against the LDS church, he will find that sympathy for his message drops precipitously as we get closer to voting our consciences.

Huckabee chose this particular issue because he perceives it to be Romney's Achilles heel. Ironically, he either forgets (or chooses to ignore) the fact that there are probably just as many people who would not want a preacher of any kind in the White House as there are anti-Mormon voters out there. It's an attack that only serves to make the ex-Governor seem petulant; like a child on the playground that hurls insults at the kids that won't let him play. Childish in the extreme.

The other problem is his intended target. Trying to get Mormons to acknowledge that our faith is in any way inferior to anyone else's has never worked (except in some personal cases) in the 177 years of this church's existence. You can label us anything you like. You can accuse us. You can insult us. You can even drive us from state to state and issue extermination orders against us. But you will never stifle our faith, or impede our growth by so doing. Been there, done that, lost the tee-shirt.

Sorry, Mr. Huckabee. This is not your election to win.

P.S. If I turn out to be wrong, and Huckabee somehow mounts a successful primary-to-nomination run, I will not move to Canada. I will instead vote independent. Not for the Democrat, mind you, but I would for the first time in my personal history be sorely tempted to dilute any vote that Huckabee might otherwise receive. I'm all for eating crow in this case, but I prefer to choose how it's cooked and served.

P.P.S. I also realize that even though there are six million Latter-day Saints living in the United States, only a fraction of that number are eligible to vote. So what? If a candidate cares that little for even one million potential voters, especially for those of his own party, what does that say about the candidate?