Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Lost Hero (a teaser)

Ill be at Comic Con in San Diego in a few weeks, and so will Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson. Among other things, well be trying to call attention to our book in progressLost Hero: The Adventurous and Tragic Life of the Man Who Invented the Comic Book—the story of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, one of the most remarkable and least known founders of the industry that Comic Con was built on. In advance of that, I thought Id share a look at it. Not an excerpt, more of a pitch or a teaser. Let me know if you find it intriguing. 

* 

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson created the comic book as we know it, discovered the first superhero, envisioned the graphic novel, and transformed the popular culture of America and the world. He also lived one of the most colorful lives of any significant figure in pop-culture history. But until now his name has been little more than a footnote in comics history.
       In the usual origin story, the founders of the comics industry were a gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters scrambling to survive in the depths of the Depression. Major Wheeler-Nicholson’s background could not have been much more different. His grandfather was a Union Army surgeon who founded a newspaper in Tennessee to help heal the wounds of the Civil War. His mother was a suffragist and journalist who knew Theodore Roosevelt and worked with Military Intelligence in the First World War. The young Major himself was a rising star of the U.S. Cavalry who chased Pancho Villa, commanded the Buffalo Soldiers, rode with the Cossacks in Siberia, played championship polo, revolutionized the use of the machine gun in combat, served as a diplomatic attaché in Paris in 1919, and then lost it all when he stood up to his superiors to fight for racial justice in a segregated army. So he became a writer, and he and the beautiful Swedish aristocrat he had married shuttled between Greenwich Village and a villa in France as he turned his own life into a series of high adventure stories.
       He was, in short, a romantic, old-world hero of a type rapidly vanishing in twentieth-century America. But, as his contemporary F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.”

*
Two forces drove Wheeler-Nicholson lifelong: a belief in his own glittering destiny, nurtured in him by his powerful mother, and a terror of ending up like his father, broke, alone, and drinking himself to death. So he dreamed, he fought, and he overreached. He sacrificed his Cavalry career to a heroic but doomed crusade to reform the Army from within. Then, when he reinvented himself as a pulp-fiction writer and military historian, he found quickly that it wasn’t enough. He wanted to matter, to change the world. Perhaps to compensate for the shattering of his own visions of personal heroism, he made it his new mission to bring high culture to the masses and to make classic heroism relevant to the twentieth century.
       He founded the company that would become DC Comics, published the first true comic book, and pioneered the adaptation of serious novels into graphic form. He personally recruited and mentored the pioneer generation of comics artists, writers, and editors. He discovered the young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, taught them how to tell a graphic story, and, alone in the publishing world, encouraged their odd idea for a “Superman.” Then, just as their hero was poised to zoom into print—turning the new art form into a national craze, establishing the template for every superhero since, and creating the first youth-targeted industry in pop-culture history—his company was stolen from him in a back-room bankruptcy maneuver by that aforementioned gang of Lower East Side schlockmeisters.
       Even then the old Major had a last chance to remain at the helm of the medium he had created, but his own big dreams and tragic pride brought him down. He would not, or could not, make the compromises required by modern American business. He fought to keep everything and ended up with nothing. The men who took the business from him, who went on to build it into a corporate giant, took credit for what he had done and recast him in the stories they told at the bar and in the boardroom as a buffoon and a blowhard.
       “The Old Man” returned quietly to the writer’s life and never tried to tell his side of the story. Unlike others in comics history who were eager to alert the world to their victimization, his old Anglo-Saxon code made his loss a source of shame to be buried and nursed in silenced. At the end of the 1940s, he took one last stab at the big time, teaching himself chemistry and developing patents for new paints that attracted significant Wall Street capital. But the wounds he had suffered were too deep, and at the last minute, to the shock and outrage of his children, he could not bring himself to sign a deal.    

       The Major was buried in 1965 in a grave that would not bear a headstone for another forty-five years. The legend of the fortune he had allowed to slip away shaped his family’s self-understanding for two generations to come. In the years after he died, comic books arrived at their first acceptability as subjects of scholarship, and the first amateur historians began to piece together the history of the field. Historians, fans, and a new generation of writers and artists launched campaigns on behalf of comics’ creative pioneers—most famously Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the writer and artist of Superman—to restore the credit and rights that had been stolen from them by the same gang who had stolen the business from Wheeler-Nicholson. But even to the people who drove those campaigns, the Major continued to be nothing but a fragmentary, slightly ridiculous figure who flitted inconsequentially through the story of the industry’s first years.
       That story was incomplete, though, not only factually but thematically. Because the natures of the comic book industry, the icon of the superhero, and the artistic capacity of the graphic novel cannot adequately be explained by the usual “born spontaneously of immigrant fantasies and Depression desperation” narrative. Those vital fantasies were the driving forces of the new field, but the comics were able to capture a mass audience and survive their historical moment because they were also given form by another body of ideas, ideas brought by a man who had traveled the world in service of an ideal of heroism then fading into twilight. Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the missing link of pop-culture evolution, essential to the story but lost to time. 



Sunday, June 1, 2014

Coast to Coast in 100 Years

On May 15, 1915, a caravan of five automobiles containing publicity agents, a film crew, and miscellaneous merchants of cars and car products set out from New York City with one long, linear mission: to travel the length of the new Lincoln Highway, through forests and deserts, over mountains and rivers, to San Francisco on the far edge of the nation. Before this highway (which had first been conceived of by some of the men in those cars), there had been no designated, passable auto route across the United States.
     There were no federal roads then, and not that many state roads, so this was a private-sector enterprise. A bunch of businessmen with stakes in the future of auto travel—guys who sold radiators or spark plugs or rubber tires—formed the Lincoln Highway Association to encourage local businesses and governments to improve certain lengths of road that, when all hooked together, would form a twisty but clear line from Times Square to Lincoln Park. (Lincoln Park was hardly San Francisco’s equivalent of Times Square, being a grassy hilltop surrounded by a golf course on the far side of the city, doing service not long before that as a cemetery, so I assume they chose it for the “Lincoln” part.)

     The vision of these men was for a smooth, safe ribbon of rock and concrete all the way, but they were willing to settle for dirt roads through the trackless wastes of the West, as long as the cars of the time could get from one end of the other without breaking an axle or sinking into the sand. It proved to be a very popular idea among people who ran hotels and restaurants in smaller cities and towns across the middle of the country, as well as ambitious men who were thinking of jumping into the very profitable automobile craze, and pretty soon those roads were being worked on.
      The idea and the approximate route of this highway had been announced in 1913, so the Lincoln Highway Association celebrated its centennial last year, with speeches and car shows and fireworks and all that. But as I read about it, I couldn’t help feeling that if I were were going to commemorate the moment when the highway came into being (if, mind you), I’d celebrate the moment when people proved they could actually traverse its whole route.        
     There is an argument for dating that too in 1913. A group of intrepid members of this L.H.A. had pushed their way by automobile all the way across the country even before the project had been officially announced, to prove it could be done, block out a plausible route, and attract some reporters to the launching ceremony. But their cars had to be hauled out of ditches and mud several times by mules, and a few times they had to go far off what would eventually be the actual route because there was no way to get through where they wanted to—and therefore I’d call their effort an impressive one on its merits but not the inauguration of anything you would call a highway.
      So the day I would celebrate (like I say, if) would be the one when that caravan full of highway boosters and filmmakers finally arrived at Lincoln Park (after stopping at the Panama-Pacific Exposition then dominating the city, which made it an even better publicity stunt), August 25, 1915.

      (If you do the math, you’ll see that no one was trying to prove anything yet about the speed of car travel. The caravan covered roughly 3,300 miles in 102 days, so about 32 miles a day. A strong hiker with good boots could almost have beaten them. It must be remembered, though, that they spent much of the voyage giving speeches at Rotary Club meetings, shaking the hands of hoteliers and tire dealers, and shooting scenes for their planned promotional movie. They assured people that the trip neednt actually take more than two weeks, which made it only about four times slower than the train.)
      No one would claim that their trip was a historical turning point, but it does work as a symbol of some major changes then coming to America. Most obviously, it stands at the beginning of the age of the automobile. But it also represents a new force for turning the sprawling states into a single nation, and a further opening of the vast American interior, beyond what the ribbons of the railroads had done, giving every turnout along every road the chance to compete for tourists and residents with every other wannabe town and city.

     And it shows the birth of a new sort of American boosterism, and with it a way of launching and organizing new industries—businesses, publicists, and consumers collaborating to create a spiraling energy of trendiness and profitability—that’s shaped much of our business culture straight into the age of personal technology. There were no robber barons in the highway-building business. The highway system would make an awful lot of money for the companies that built cars, made their parts, forged steel, vulcanized latex, and distilled gasoline, but their profits were indirect. In the actual making of the roads, the people who made the immediate money were gravel-quarry owners, asphalt mixers, bridge builders, and the adventurers who thought opening a gas station would be more rewarding than selling horse feed.
     There’s personal symbolism for me in that highway, too. I’ve participated in the general affection for Route 66, but really, it doesn’t touch me much. It wound, after all, from Chicago to L.A., from one city I find impressive and interesting to another with which I’m weirdly fascinated, but neither of them feels like my city. San Francisco is my city, literally, and New York is the one I’ve carried a torch for since I was a teenager, the one I keep writing about, keep going back to, keep wondering if I should have moved to before I got too old.

      As if that weren’t enough, my mother grew up along the Lincoln Highway—in Rawlins, Wyoming in the 1920s and ‘30s, near the highest point of the route, where the highway itself was both the main street and the way out of town. I think it was in her reminiscences that I first heard the phrase “Lincoln Highway.” In any case, I know it was in her reminiscences that I first understood what highways meant to people growing up in the towns of the American interior. 
      (Come to think of it, my dad lived just a few blocks from the Lincoln Highway too, when he was very young, although on the far western end of it, as it passed along Foothill Boulevard in Oakland, where it wouldnt really have had the lustre of a transcontinental highway. Still, its intriguing to think of my parents connected by a road, a thousand miles apart, when they were little children.)
     If I were to do something to acknowledge the centennial of the first of those great highways (and I
’m still clinging to if, but barely), I would set out from Times Square on May 15 of next year and travel for the next 102 days along what remains of the original route, studying its history and immersing myself in the towns it helped bring into existence.          
      And if I were to try to justify the trip to myself and have a chance of covering the costs, I’d write a book about it. Not just a historical tour of the highway—there are already a couple of those, and they’re good—but some way of using the journey as a lens through which to consider how the past hundred years of cars, business, growth, and mobility have shaped the country. And through that to understand a bit better how I, as the son of a daughter of that highway, have been shaped by it too.     
      That gives me nearly a year to figure out whether this is a clever idea or a crazy one. Either way, I’m probably going to do it.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Sights of Music

May brings two of my favorite cinematic and musical experiences: on the 3rd, Mark Cantor’s latest installment of Giants of Jazz on Film, and from the 29th through June 1st, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
       They seem like an odd pair at first. Cantor’s collection of old performance footage is clearly about the music, with a visual augmentation—only people who already love Lester Young’s music would have much interest in watching him play. The silents are, or would seem to be, all about the images, with a musical augmentation. But the more I see of both (Cantor two or three times a year for the past ten years, the silents three or four days of full immersion every year for about the same span) the more I see how they speak to me in the same way.
Some of the films Cantor screens were created as cinema, others are simple records of musicians playing. There are musical interludes made for Hollywood movies, “soundies” made for the weird visual Panoram jukeboxes of the ‘40s, and straight concert or TV performances. The most cinematic can be visually brilliant (track down Jammin’ the Blues from 1944), but even the simplest can be visually fascinating—the eyes and body language of a great musician in mid-solo, the shared glances and minuscule clues shared by band mates, the occasional glimpse of the crowd (an auditorium full of hip Danes listening to Bill Evans in 1966).
        Silent movies have always depended on music to work. After their first few years, every movie theater included some kind of music—piano, organ, or, in the big city picture palaces, a full orchestra. The movies were made in the awareness that they would be playing to music, and it didn’t take long for the studios to start sending out scores with their film canisters so musicians could play what the producers imagined as the aural half of their creation.
       In the age of sound, most silent movies have been issued with recorded musical tracks, but the S. F. Silent Film Festival only uses live music—by the warm and delicate Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the subtly startling Matti Bye Ensemble, the gymnastically multi-instrumental Stephen Horne, and others equally distinctalmost always newly composed by the musicians. In doing so, theyve turned silent films into experiences as musical as they are visual.
       Both the jazz clips and the silent features explore the interplay of image and sound, liberated from the word. Between them, they say things that words never could.
       Mark Cantor’s show this Saturday is called “Broadway to Hollywood and All That Jazz”—music written for stage shows and movies by the Gershwin brothers, Rodgers and Hart, and the usual suspects by great jazz musicians and singers. He isn’t announcing which jazz musicians and singers, but his collection is vast and his taste is as broad as it is good. (Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan are almost guaranteed, and Im hoping for a Lennie Tristano.)
       I’m especially happy with the SFSFF this year. For two years they’ve scheduled it at the same time as the San Diego Comic Con, which meant that I missed most of the Con those years (no big deal), but also that my friend Joe Filice—who had been my regular companion and source of strength on many twelve-hour days of movie after movie—couldn’t come, because he had family plans centering on the Con. This year the silents are in May, Comic Con is in July, and all is well with the world.
       The silent festivals schedule leads off with a solid crowd pleaser, Valentino in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, then jumps to China at the brink of World War II for The Song of the Fisherman, starring one of my heartthrobs, Wang Renmei. Then comes Midnight Madness, one of those high-speed, high-passion melodramas that Hollywood got so good at right before the switch to sound, then some artful Swedish bleakness with The Parson’s Widow, then Dolores Del Rio glowing supernally in Ramona, and then what looks to be a truly bizarre piece of Soviet science fiction called Cosmic Voyage. Which concludes Day Two and leaves only twelve more movies. I’m going to be tired, sore, and happy.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Poetic IronYee

Senator Leland Yee carved out a niche for himself as one of the nations leading legislative opponents of violent video games. It was a useful cause for him throughout his career. His original base of support was among first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans in San Francisco and its suburbs, very concerned with their childrens futures and distrustful of the larger popular cultures chaotic and hedonistic sides. As he worked to make a California-wide name for himself, building up to a run for Secretary of State, it fit well with both nanny-state liberalism and social conservatism, one of the few trans-party issues an American politician can find these days.       
       Its also an issue with no strong opposition. The game community has never been able to mount an effective, broad-scale defense of its more violent products. Partly thats because its corporate leaders and legal representatives chose early on to stick with a defensive position reminiscent of Big Tobacco in its cigarettes dont cause cancer days, insisting that video games never have any effect of any kind on anyones behavior; its a position thats worked well enough in court over the years, but it prevents them from making any plausible claims about the positive effects of games and makes it essentially impossible for them to function as members of a larger society, collaborating on discussions of social, psychological, and moral issues. I think its partly a cultural issue, too: the traits that lead people to become passionate gamers (like, say, a love of mastering systems of invariant rules in order to achieve clear-cut victories) are not the traits that lead people into political activity, which is always about distasteful compromise and partial success. 
       Whatever the reason, video games are one of those things—like pornography and gambling for most of their histories, like distilling liquor at the end of World War I—that are hated by a minority and enjoyed by a majority but produce hardly any political champions willing to fight for them publicly. Which makes them a fine tool for ambitious politicians with a talent for on-camera moral earnestness but little to offer in terms of the nuts and bolts of governance.
       Yee was also a loud advocate of gun control. Thats a position with a very strong political opposition, but its also a fairly safe one for a California Democrat, and it worked well with his anti-video-game bills to enhance his image as a protector of children and families.
       Im using the past tense, of course, because Senator Yee was recently arrested by the FBI for conspiring to sell illegal weapons across international borders. More specifically, for conspiring with Chinese gangsters and New Jersey mafiosi, whom he knew to be murderers and drug dealers, to sell billions of dollars worth of machine guns and portable rocket launchers to Muslim guerrillas in North Africa and the Philippines.
       Which, really, is about as vile as an act of official corruption is likely to get. Almost worthy of the villain in a video game.    
       Now, I do want to honor the sacred American journalistic tradition of pretending to think that the accused might be innocent until a jury pronounces him guilty. And I do want to add that the transaction never actually took place, that the New Jersey mafiosi were in fact undercover FBI agents, and that the whole deal was concocted as part of a sting. But you know that the FBI doesnt go arresting prominent elected officials unless it has a very strong case. And Yees connections to the Chinatown mobs and willingness to do anything for campaign contributions are known from other sources. I could add allegedly to several of the following sentences, but it would feel disingenuous.
       One of the more illuminating moments in the very long FBI complaint comes when Yee tells his new Mafia friend, Im a gun-lover, and says he wishes he could live the life of the gangster. Im not offended that a public officials private values are very different from his public positions; the idea that a legislator should vote from his own heart of hearts rather than from what his constituents want runs counter to the whole idea of representative democracy. Nor am I personally appalled that someone loves guns or envies criminals. Love and fantasy are complex matters, and Im not sure any of us can be pure in heart without a great deal of repression. 
       But I am struck by what appears to be another case of something that Ive seen over and over again in writing about the cultural histories of media and violence. In condemning something, we amplify its glamor. In demonizing any aspect of the human imagination, we give it more power in our own minds. Its often the moral watchdog who becomes more pruriently obsessed with the very taboo hes watching against.
       Im hesitant to make too much of this psychologizing. This could all be simple political cynicism on Yees part: tell parents whose votes hes courting and the thug hes trying to cut a deal with that he shares their values, whatever they may happen to be. Indeed, the one character trait that emerges from every story about Yee is that he was so consumed by a passion to advance politically that he would do just about anything for votes and campaign cash.
       Still, I do think theres a larger truth revealed here, whatever the individual circumstances may be. We are a nation in which guns, money, and power are infernally interwoven. We are also a culture shot through with a fascination for violence. Even when we abhor it in reality and work to eliminate it from daily life, it holds a place in our art and imagination that it wont surrender easily; in fact, the harder we try to eliminate from reality, the more powerful it can become in fantasy. 
       And we are a species that has never once, anywhere, been able to will away our own animal nature—not through indoctrination, education, or legislation. The more we try to make ourselves believe that our own violence is something simple and removable, the more perversely ironic will be its reminders that it is anything but.


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Keep Thinking about Pollyanna

Among Richard Diebenkorns papers when he died, someone found a sheet of paper labeled Notes to myself on beginning a painting. There were ten of those notes:

1. Attempt what is not certain. Certainty may or may not come later. It may then be a valuable delusion.

2. The pretty, initial position which falls short of completeness is not to be valued—except as stimulus for further moves.

3. Do search. But in order to find other than what is searched for.

4. Use and respond to the initial fresh qualities but consider them absolutely expendable.


5. Dont discover a subject—of any kind.

6. Somehow dont be bored—but if you must, use it in action. Use its destructive potential.

7. Mistakes cant be erased but they move you from your present position.

8. Keep thinking about Pollyanna.

9. Tolerate chaos.

10. Be careful only in a perverse way.

I almost want to say I wish I’d seen this when I was in the worst of my confusion about The Undressing of America, but honestly, I probably wouldn’t have known what to do with it. My usual experience with advice is that it crystallizes what I’ve already experienced more than it points to a new path. But that crystallizing helps me remember what I learned next time I hit a similar mess.
       When I first read the list, it was the line about the destructive power of boredom that jumped out at me—because I bogged down in boredom so often in writing the earlier version of the book, but I always thought my response should be to whip up new enthusiasm for what I was doing or just slog through it and assume I’d fix it in rewrite. Which got me nowhere. Nothing could really change until the boredom grew so deep and so infuriating that I burned down the whole damned thing and started over.
       And destruction, of course, can be the first step of creation. It opened me to abandoning all my original positions, welcoming uncertainty and chaos, making mobilizing mistakes in the search for I didn’t know what.     
       The one note I dismissed as silliness at first was the one about Pollyanna—but it was the line I kept coming back to, and now I think I’m starting to get it. In fact, I’m discovering that the “glad game” is almost essential to taking all this on. I wasted a lot of emotional energy getting mad at myself for heading off in the wrong direction, not seeing that I’d hit a wall, and staying stuck for so many months. But I can find things to be glad of: glad to have wandered in the wrong direction, because it took me off my safe, familiar turf; glad to have been forced to throw out a whole book, because it made me braver; glad that I had that long period of non-production, because it turns out to have been a chrysalis. 
       So a fine painter and a fictional eleven-year-old girl discovered the same principle, which I’m learning now: when I’m glad about the paths I went down, even the ones that were most frustrating at the time, then I have the courage to plunge down new paths again.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Still Undressing (After All These Years)

I had a great year in 2013: rich and sane and productive, full of wonderful people, good work, and just enough adventure. But there’s one part of my life that didn’t go the way I hoped. I really, really, really thought that ’13 would be the year I finally finished The Undressing of America. And yet, here I am, even as I’m already starting my next book, still adding to it.
       This wasn’t due to a lack of work, nor to throwing it out and starting over (as I did more than once before). I wrote a good draft of a good book. But it became very clear at a certain point, as I was trying very hard to convince myself that it was good enough, that it had the potential to be a much better book. And having glimpsed that other book, I just couldn’t bear to let it never happen.
       I’m not usually a proponent of this kind of thinking. Clearly this kind of thing can lead straight into the treacherous bogs of perfectionism. There’s a saying going around out there, “Done is better than perfect.” I haven’t been able to find out who came up with it. Some have said Mark Zuckerberg, others Sheryl Sandberg; give it a while and, the internet being what it is, I’m sure we’ll see it attributed to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and Nelson Mandela. But wherever it came from, I like it. Because I firmly believe, as another quote has it, that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” (Which I’m pretty sure was Voltaire. Or Abe Lincoln. Or Bill Gates.)
       But there’s a spectrum here, surely. Holding something up for months in order to finesse the last few details is neurotic, but banging something out overnight even though it’s a pile of junk isn’t a sane alternative. I presented the world with several piles of junk in my comics-writing days, when I took on too much work and not only didn’t have time to worry about perfection but didn’t have enough even to worry about coherence or originality. One of the hardest parts of any job in which we have to make our own calls about whether something’s done or not is finding that magical balance point where we’re neither excessively driven by a hunger to get it over with nor a mania to make it just right. 
       In the case of this current book, I’ve finally decided that I haven’t reached that point yet. There are downsides to that, professionally, financially, and psychologically. But the downsides to stopping now look bigger to me. Because I may never write about quite this subject again, and the pragmatic realities of my life may never give me this much flexibility again, and I believe there might be real value in the not-finished book I’m seeing.
       Basically, the deal is this: the book tells the story of America’s moral and legal wars over issues of the body, sex, and privacy as they helped shape our culture from the 19th century into the 20th. As conceived up ’til now, it began with Anthony Comstock’s ferocious assault on public discussions of private matters in art, literature, politics, and public health, starting at the end of the Civil War. But what became increasingly clear to me (with some editorial prodding) is that Comstock’s war doesn’t make enough sense without understanding the men who inspired and supported him, and their evangelical crusade to reform the nation in the decades leading up to the Civil War—especially given how deeply entwined that crusade was with abolitionism and the birth of feminism. Nor did the story of his opponents make enough sense without understanding the origins of the free-thinkers and free-speechers from whom they descended, and the way their crusade got all tangled up with the early days of vaudeville and pornography. And after a while it all became just too much to cover in quick backstory.
       So now the book begins at its proper beginning: in 1827, with the arrival of the first ballerina to New York and Samuel F. B. Morse’s public denunciation of her, with Fanny Wright’s flight from her collapsing interracial free-love commune in Nashoba, with the wildfire of Charles Finney’s revolutionary evangelism, and with Elijah Pierson’s mad, doomed mission to save the souls of prostitutes. It will be a long book, and it will be an even later book than it already is. But I believe it will be a good book. Anyway, I owe it the chance to find out. 
       (As for the next book, Lost Hero, about Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson and the secret origin of comic books...that one I promise to finish on time. Because on that one I have a collaborator, and she’s not going to let me get away with anything else.)



Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Twelve DVDs of Christmas

Because my son was in Japan until December 24th, I thought we might have to skip our ritual holiday-DVD viewing; instead, he suggested do it over the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, starting on the 25th and running to January 5. We won't really be watching one per night, because he's off with friends part of the time and some of them are way too short to fill an evening anyway, but we've agreed on twelve that we'll definitely watch, and without which the season wouldn't feel quite complete.


A Charlie Brown Christmas
At barely over 20 minutes, this still says more about the experience of Christmas in modern America than anything else I've seen. Not just the overt message about commercialization, but the melancholy, the alienation, the desperate pursuit of getting Christmas "right," the manic participation in rituals that no one really cares about, the sudden eruptions of religious seriousness that seem like they should be important but never actually make sense with the rest of it...and then that weird way in which it all seems to come out fine in the end. Plus Vince Guaraldi, who only seems to grow more ubiquitous with the passing decades. Sometimes I wonder if this thing didn't create modern Christmas as much as it reflected it.


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
This is one of those works of art that's simply perfect for what it is. At the same time, the question of just what it is remains slightly elusive. Epic fantasy? Sly satire? Juvenile cute-animal fest? In some way it transcends them all. I never get bored with it, despite having it all perfectly impressed on my memory. It's also the one show that takes me back most completely to what Christmas felt like when I was seven or eight—bright, plastic, mysterious, surprising, and ultimately safe—and it seems to do the same for Nicky, as different as the world of our childhoods were.


 Pee Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special
This is pretty much a satire of Christmas specials, but it's so colorful and the humor is so bent that it captures the eternal, dorky weirdness of TV, Christmas, and modern childhood better than whatever it's satirizing. A lot of it is devoted to '80s camp, with guest appearances by faded celebrities my son could never have heard of—Grace Jones, K. D. Laing, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Little Richard, Magic Johnson, Dinah Shore—which I thought would be boring for him. But somehow the utter weirdness of them all (and his initial assumption that they were all just actors playing invented characters) only made them funnier to him. Frankie Avalon, a talking cow, and Santa Claus...all just the stuff of Christmas media madness.


"Hearth's Warming Eve" from
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic 
What? It's good! Nicky was the one who discovered this (no surprise), but I've adopted it as one of my own. It actually has very little to do with Christmas—the ponies' holiday pageant celebrates a national origin myth, not the birth of any equestrian savior—but it has some gorgeous evocations of winter wind and frost, the story is unlike anything I've seen in a cartoon, it's pictorially delightful, the characters are charmingly ridiculous, and it maintains that delicate balance the show strikes so well between spoofery and earnestness.


A Christmas Story
Not many movies stand up to multiple viewings for me, but this one's so rich, not just in event and character but in detail and texture, that I always find something to enjoy even when I know exactly what's coming. What impresses me most, though, is the way Ralphie and Randy are portrayed; I usually hate Hollywood's idea of kids, but these two are unlike anything else I've seen in movies, somehow more ludicrously cartoony and more humanly believable at the same time. We never call the movie by its title. It's always, "Do you want to watch Ralphie?"


Remember the Night
I asked for this one, and Nicky's going to give it a chance based on my assurance that it's got a very different tone from most Hollywood Christmas movies. In fact, it's from before there was really such a thing as a "Christmas movie," from 1941, when a comedic melodrama could make good use the holidays without having to go all preachy, cloying, and self-important. It stars Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray, three years before they generated an equally intense but very different chemistry in Double Indemnity. Here too, Stanwyck is a bad girl who leads the too-straight MacMurray into crime, but this time they don't end up dead, thanks to MacMurray's oddball Indiana home folks and the bounty and limitations of a rural Christmas. It was written by Preston Sturges, who would very soon be writing and directing Stanwyck in The Lady Eve. Like everything else by Sturges, it's a unique blend of elements.


Babes in Toyland
(aka March of the Wooden Soldiers)
My father introduced me to this one, and it was the movie I waited to see every year on TV from the time I was four or five years old. It's an oddity, a sentimental musical from the end of the Victorian era mashed up with Laurel and Hardy's vaguely sadistic Depression-era comedy, an oddness that I think I sensed at some level even then. Or, at least, I was haunted by some of its bizarre and even frightening elements: that Mickey Mouse imitation that could be a marionette or a monkey in a suit or God knows what; Ollie being nearly drowned in public torture; the Bogie Men with their goggling eyes and zippered backs; the wooden soldier marching with its head knocked off, a terrified child wrapped around its chest. Apparently they were images that haunted my son, too, because although he has little interest in Laurel and Hardy or their brand of comedy, he always wants to see this one.


The Little Drummer Boy  
Books 1 & 2
The two parts were made years apart, and the second isn't as good, and yet together they're very pleasing. The original is a pretty and affecting little thing, managing to blend High Church solemnity with the Rankin-Bass style of silly animal humor. It's quite complete in itself, but at the end we like knowing that there's more to come with the same drummer boy and the same goofy beasts. And a lot more room for slapstick in the sequel.

 
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol
I was fascinated with this as a kid, I think largely because cartoons of this length and seriousness were nearly unknown on TV then. But after a few years I got bored and thought I'd never need to see it again...until my friend Joe sent it to me on a VHS tape, I showed it to Nicky for the heck of it, and he liked it. I still find a lot of it dull, but I do like those ghosts. There are moments when they're genuinely eerie, which isn't easy when they're playing off a character like Magoo. 
 


Scrooge  
This is the Alistair Sim version from 1951, the Christmas Carol I kept liking after I got tired of Mr. Magoo. Nicky likes this one less than me, but he hangs in for the scariest and moodiest moments. the horror-at-Christmas tradition is one Americans never really went for but the British can still do well. This one makes nearly all the ghosts, even those miscellaneous shades whirling through the air, as scary as the spirit of Christmas future. And Sim often makes Scrooge himself the spookiest character of all. 


 Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
This one snuck up on us both. What happened was: back when Gene Autry had his huge hit with Rudolph, he and his people decided to cobble up another Christmas song to exploit the market. They substituted a donkey for the reindeer, big ears for the red nose, and baby Jesus for Santa Claus. It was a pretty lousy song, but by the mid-'70s, when the Rankin-Bass people were running out of ideas to sustain their TV-special business, they saw something they could work with. And indeed they did: Romeo Muller turned in one of his most charming stories, the animals were funny, and Roger Miller's narrative sold it all with a strange conviction. It's not Rudolph, but it feels like a visit to his universe.


It's a Wonderful Life
I used to have this movie on in the background every Christmas Eve, when I'd be up until 2:00 AM wrapping presents. Now that the present-giving has gotten a lot lighter, I almost want to let it slip away, but I can't bring myself. Every time I see it, it impresses me again with its intensity, its darkness, its raw agony, its honesty about the cruel tricks life can play. Although we don't like to look at it in our smiley-face culture, there is a frightening darkness around the edges of the Christmas story: the terror of the Imperial tax, the freezing night, the slaughter of the innocents, and the foreboding gift of the one of the Magi (Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume / Breathes a life of gathering gloom. / Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, / Sealed in the stone-cold tomb. / O Star of wonder, star of night...). And, of course, for any convincing story of a soul's redemption, or any myth of light emerging from darkness, the night has to grow very deep before the brightness of the star begins to shine. Capra, Stewart, and company make me feel the deep darkness more than just about any movie, and then they make its frantic redemption very nearly believable. This year I want to use it to close off the sacred season.


Which brings us to January 5th, the Twelfth Day. But then there's the Epiphany...which doesn't mean I've just had a sudden realization, it means we usually do some final Christmas rituals on January 6, the Epiphany, the celebration of the manifestation of God on earth, to seal off the holy days. That's likely to include one last movie before I put the holiday DVD box on that shelf in the corner of the basement, where it must go untouched until the day after Thanksgiving. Nicky's likely to push for The Nightmare Before Christmas or How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Chuck Jones version, of course), but I feel like wallowing a little longer in old Hollywood. My two candidates are:


Miracle on 34th Street
Yeah, it gets a bit tiresome with repeated viewings, but I'll always have a fascination for the era of American holidays shaped around the Macy's parade, department store Santas, New York bustle, and moanings about the commercialization of Christmas when people actually seemed to care (before that itself became just another Yuletide custom). That era was still alive when I was a kid, or at least it seemed to be everyone's assumption of how the season should be, although I saw a mostly diluted and suburban-mallified version. Nicky seems to find it all interesting too, as exotica, probably the way I like movies from before 1920. And, of course, Natalie Wood is endearing, slightly troubling, and unfailingly compelling.


Holiday Affair
Not a great movie, but sweet. And Mitchum for Christmas? What could be more weirdly perfect?