Monday, December 11, 2006

A Charlie Brown Christmas

About a week ago I heard a story on NPR about the soundtrack to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas. I'm a longtime fan of the Charlie Brown specials -- lusting after all those Dolly Madison dessert commercials. One thing I never gave much thought to was the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was composed and played by underrated jazz genius, Vince Guaraldi. The fact, alone, that the man composed "Linus and Lucy," the Charlie Brown theme, places him right next to Mozart and Handel in my book.

Yesterday I bought the CD A Charlie Brown Christmas for my wife. Figuring she would get more enjoyment out of it receiving it before Xmas, I gave it to her last night. We listened to it all day today, and I was just floored by the sheer greatness of the music.

I'm no music connoisseur, and can only haphazardly comment on what moves me. The music of Vince Guaraldi moves me immensely. Particularly his rendition of "Little Drummer Boy." Gosh, the production on that gem really grabbed me. Accompanied by childrens' voices singing a soft, Ella Fitzgerald-esque vocal bassline, Guaraldi's piano glides along every poignant nuance of that song -- one that I have always found exceedingly sad for some reason I haven't fathomed in more than thirty years of hearing it. But Guaraldi gave it a light, gorgeous treatment, reimagining that seasonal favorite in quite a stunning way.

It was no surprise to hear in the NPR report that the TV execs of the day were entirely against all the things that ultimately made A Charlie Brown Christmas an unequivocal success at the time, and a classic today. They felt that jazz was entirely misplaced in a childrens' cartoon. And the theme of the program -- that Charlie Brown was down about the commercialism surrounding Xmas -- was completely inappropriate. Somehow, they lost the battle of these creative issues -- and thank Christ for that.

And I could listen to "Linus and Lucy" all day long. Hearing the full version of that track, with Guaraldi flying off into numerous variations on his theme, was the audible equivalent to flipping through an old family photo album.

I'm so pleased that this classic is back in my life. Guaraldi was an amazingly articulate pianist, capturing the fireside coziness of Xmas along with the slight tinge of melancholy that Charlie Brown felt seeing that this holiday is really just another occasion for bearers of arcana -- the nightly news -- to tell us that this year sales were up by one-half of a quarter percentage point over last year's, which makes it the third best holiday in the past seven years...

Forget that. And forget the Muzak monstrocities that assault us this season at the mall. Vince Guaraldi and the magic of Charlie Brown have brought me back to the side of Xmas that envelopes me like a comfortable chair in a favorite room on a day when I have nothing to do but occupy myself with fun memories.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Excommunicate me, please!

Say your parents enrolled you in a group when you were a small child, far too young to make your own decisions. Many people your age were signed up, too -- as though for little league baseball or midget hockey -- and whole groups of you went through the little rites that came when you were seven years of age, nine years of age, thirteen. Then one day when you were old enough to make your own decisions, you leared that the group in which your parents enrolled you was Hitler Youth.

What would you do?

Shrug and say, "Well, that's how I was brought up"? Or would you do what your right mind told you and get yourself the hell out of it?

For more than a decade I have actively sought formal, written excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.

In the late 1990's, I wrote a long acerbic letter to my parish denouncing the pedophile priesthood, saying the Catholic Church should be brought before the World Court and the U.N. on charges of being a terrorist organization. I finished off the letter asking that the record of my baptism be stricken from the parish records.

Weeks later I received a tepid note accompanied by my original letter. The wane, dot matrix letter consisted of one line informing me that my baptism had been stricken from the record.

(As the deities would have it, many months later, I inadvertently learned that a friend of my family -- the wife of a famous writer, no less -- worked in that parish office and very likely was the person who responded to my letter. No one but myself made this connection (no one else knowing about my letter), but this may account why her famous author husband acted like I owed him money when I later called him asking for aid locating an agent for my writing.)

Petty, unintentional affronts aside, that pissy, white-tea parish missive wasn't enough for me. I wanted a gold sealed velum denunciation in Gothic script formally excommunicating me from the Church.

So I wrote to the bishop who had confirmed me in the Church when I was thirteen years old. This bishop has a well-documented record of shifting known pedophile priests from parish to parish rather than taking them out of circulation. So I rolled up this knowledge like an old newspaper and whacked the bishop over his funny hat with it. Then, in an attempt to leave no stone unturned, I asked the bish, "What the hell does a guy have to do to get excommunicated from this lousy church? Perform an abortion on the steps of a cathedral on Good Friday while wearing a mask of the pope's face?"

To which the bishop actually emailed a response to me -- proving that the clergy can type with one hand -- that read, "You're a sad, pathetic, angry man. I feel sorry for you!"

And still no Gothic script declaration.

Maybe the bishop can only excommunicate an insane person, and my asking to be excommunicated is the act of a sane man. Therefore...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Movie Watching Weekend

Ventured back into my favorite territory this weekend -- back into heavy movie-watching. Rented a really cool documentary about an all-American weirdo-Brian-Wilson-type-genius titled The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is a singer/songwriter-visual-artist from Virginia -- now living in Ohio, I believe -- who is a man of many quirks, even more demons, and an ocean of talent. As a youth, he was into making short films filled with his psychotic drawings -- he made a name for himself in high school drawing eyes with all of the accompanying veins and gory attachments everywhere he could find space -- which he scored with his orginal songs.

The first thing that struck me about the movie was that ole Daniel sure knows his way around gorgeous melodies. Tom Waits, Beck, Pearl Jam, and a host of other famous bands have recorded Daniel Johnston songs. Kurt Cobain was often seen (and photographed) wearing Daniel Johnston T-shirts.

Johnston is a brilliant madman who terrified and confused his devout-Christian family. I was immensely impressed seeing the short films he made as a youth. In one, he played himself as well as his mother, doing a brutal parody of a shrew in curlers berating her slow-waking, slow-moving son. Daniel was also mad about tape recording conversations. After a couple of present-day interviews with his sweet, white-haired mother, the audience hears some of the surrepetitious recordings he made of her berating him when he was in his teens. This provides an interesting, quease-making contrast to the June Cleaver reminiscing in her backyard. As one of Daniel's friends rightly points out, these tirades were not unwarranted. Daniel was lazy, he was contrary to everything his family valued. He was an artist among rough-handed tradesmen. He was a thinker and a dreamer among doers.

During one tirade against Daniel, his mother declared him "an unprofitable servant" of God. One of Daniel's friends tells of how Daniel turned this phrase around into declaring himself an "unserviceable prophet," which I thought was really cool.

As Daniel grew out of his teens, he displayed definite signs of mental illness. Even those friends who loved and revered him -- who would defend his most bizarre actions -- agreed that he could be pretty scary and remote at times. There is the story of Daniel running off for months with a carnival; the time he completely lost his marble in New York while his hosts, Sonic Youth, drove all over Gotham in search of him (finally locating him in New Jersey);Daniel beating a friend over the head with a lead pipe; among numerous, numerous hospitalizations.

Through the tumult came an astounding body of work. Daniel now tours internationally playing his music as his artwork tours the world, as well. He does not appear to be in great mental shape these days -- and is in ever worse physical shape; sporting a globe of gut that would set the most proficient beer drinker in awe. But he continues making music, making people nervous, and thrilling audiences. Until this weekend, I'd never heard of Daniel Johnston. Now, I want to hear a whole lot more about him.

Then I checked out the much-talked-about The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The NPR review I heard weeks ago about the film made it sound like a surreal journey into the moments enveloping a human being after death. In fact, I distinctly recall how the reviewer cautioned the audience not to be put off by the fact that the main characters dies minutes into the film. Well, I must have crossed that review with the wrong film. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is a slow-moving, dull, dreary story about an old man with a sore stomach and a sore head and how he encouners unpleasant doctors when he goes to the hospital. There is no surreal, philosophical look at death and dying. This is merely a dull travelogue of Romanian hospitals as Mr. Lazarescu is shuttled from healing house to healing house. An hour and twenty minutes into this drag, I shut the film off.

The film-watching weekend, though, was completely salvaged when I viewed the entire four-film Ju On saga: Ju On: The Grudge, Ju On: The Grudge 2, Ju On: The Curse, Ju On: The Curse 2. The opening of each film informs the viewer: "Ju-on: The curse of one who dies in the grip of powerful rage. It gathers and takes effect in the places that person was alive. Those who encounter it die, and a new curse is born."

This is the film series (the first two of which, at least) that were remade in America as The Grudge and The Grudge 2. I'm sick of Hollywood drek, so I watched the originals in subtitled Japanese. And goddamn, the Japanese sure know what is scary.

The four film saga is episodic, following a number of characters and their interaction with the house where the Grudge resides. Anyone who doubts that horror can exist in modern life beyond insane, stalking murderers should see these films. One of the most interesting aspects of Japanese horror is how it infiltrates technology. There are cellphone calls from the dead. TV programs are highjacked by spirits. Lights are subject to otherworldly currents. And the Japanese versions of these films do not shy away from showing us the monsters.

There is one nerve-twisting scene (in Ju On, the first of the series) when a woman is in an office building rest room. Slow moving, scraping footsteps pass by her stall, and her cellphone malevolently malfunctions. She hurries out of her stall and is confronted by a humanoid monster; a woman in a white gown who stands with her head severely downcast, her long black hair obscuring her face. The main character escapes to the building's security office. There, a male security guard tells her to sit tight while he goes down to investigate. The woman watches on a closed-circuit TV screen as the security guard walks to the door of the rest room, and stops. The monster, now taking the form of black smoke, moves out the door and envelopes and kills him. Then the black smoke floats up with excrutiating slowness to the security camera, filling its lense with blackness -- from which a pair of eyes suddenly emerge. The effect is absolutely horrifying.

Ju On: The Grudge 2 has a very slow start, but once the film hits its stride -- about thirty or forty minutes in -- the story and tension are unrelenting. The story centers on the dreaded house where the original Grudge manifested, looking at its unhappy history with characters reliving various terrifying moments. This is carried through quite effectively in Ju On: The Curse and Ju On: The Curse 2. It must be said that Ju On: The Curse 2 has a fantastic, understated, yet thoroughly creepy ending. None of these films are sequels like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. The Ju On sequels genuinely further a story that is definitely worth telling.

The recurring images in the films -- the ghostly, gray-bodied boy who screeches like a cat; the broken-bodied woman who crawls down stairs and through halls like a serpent; the innocents whose faces contort in wild renditions of terror -- continue to haunt well after the credit have rolled and the music has silenced.

I've never been much of a fan of horror films, but I cannot deny relishing Japanese horror movies, like Shikoku, The Eye. The Eye 2, The Ring, Premonition, and others. These are the perfect antidotes for the formulaic drivel Hollywood spews year after year.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

My First Firsthand Experience with Crucifixion

I have never been handy with a hammer or any other sort of tool -- other than a keyboard. When I was a kid, though, I did enjoy going into my father's cluttered, chaotic workshop and randomly hammering nails into wood. There was a day when I was about eight or nine years old when I nailed two pieces of wood together. They formed a cross like the one in church that had the bronze statue of the tortured Jesus hanging from it. This was way back in the days before I realized god couldn't pass the Turing Test.

As I looked at the cross I held in my hand, I slowly turned my gaze through the open workshop door, which led into the part of the basement where my brother and I played. There on the floor, face down, lay my rubber Spiderman action figure. A weird sort of inspriation took over and the next think I knew I had nailed Spiderman to the cross I had made. He fit perfectly; his pose -- arms stretched out, feet together, as though leaping -- was crucifixion-ready.

I can't remember if I went and showed my dad what I had done or if he had come into the workshop about then. My dad was principal of a Catholic elementary school, who had been educated by the Basilian priests at the Catholic secondary school I would attend years later. He had spent a year in the seminary when he was eighteen years old. When he saw my handiwork, his face took on a strange shocked/appalled expression, and he said, "Son, take Spiderman down from the cross."