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Movie Crash Course: The Phantom Carriage

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Okay, this wasn’t perfect. But – it was strangely affecting.

This Swedish film from 1921 was a sort of combo of It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. Instead of a Christmas setting, the story takes place on New Year’s Eve in a small Swedish town.  A young social worker, Sister Edit, is dying of consumption and begs her colleagues to seek out a man named David Holm – she insists she needs to talk to him before she dies.  David Holm, meanwhile, is hanging out in the graveyard, splitting a bottle of hooch with a pair of buddies; he tells them a “ghost story” he heard from a friend, Georges, about how the person who dies at the stroke of midnight every New Year’s Eve is doomed to drive a spectral carriage for the following year, collecting the souls of the newly-dead and bringing them to their final destination.

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One of Edit’s colleagues finds the group shortly thereafter, and tries to persuade David to come with him.  Nothing doing – David angrly chases him off.  His friends are shocked at his reluctance and try to persuade him to visit Sister Edit after all – she’s on her deathbed, they insist, he has to – but David still refuses.  They argue, eventually coming to blows – and one of the other men finally takes a swing at David with a log, hitting him in the head and killing him, just as the clock strikes midnight. They run off – but soon along comes the ghostly carriage, ready to put David to work.  And who else should be driving – but Georges.

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It’s especially fitting, Georges says, that David should replace him – since Georges blames himself for leading David into a drunkard’s life to begin with. David – still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he’s, well, dead – doesn’t follow. So Georges leads David, and us, on an extended flashback into David’s past.

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David was once happily married, and had a younger brother who was doting uncle to David’s two little girls. But Georges lead the brothers into drink, and both ended up in prison – David for public lewdness, and his brother for manslaughter.  When David got out of prison, he found an empty house – his wife Anna had taken the two girls and split.  Vowing revenge, David hit the road – and kept hitting the bottle.

Georges reminds David that one year prior, David had stumbled into a flophouse – which just so happened to be run by Sister Edit. Moved by pity, she stayed up all night mending his coat, uttering a prayer at the stroke of midnight that David have a happy year.  When David woke and saw the mended coat, he asked to meet the person who fixed it – and then with Sister Edit looking on, he ripped off all the patches, just to mess with her, before leaving.

But Sister Edit just became more determined to save him, and began making surprise visits to the saloon to talk sense into him. She even manages to track down David’s wife, and talks her into taking him back. But David – by now also sick with consumption – does nothing to reform his ways, and his wife is soon sick as well.

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Georges wraps up his flashback with a recommendation that they visit Sister Edit after all, since she was looking for him.  When they reach her beside, Sister Edit is near enough to death to see Georges – but begs him to spare her for a few minutes, so she can talk to David. But David is floored when he hears her say that it’s because she wants to apologize. She thinks that bringing David and Anna together again only made things worse for them both. Touched by her kindness, David regretfully reveals himself and kisses her hand; Edit, touched by his forgiveness, finally dies.  Georges ushers David out when she does, though, telling him with a glance up that “others will come for her for where she’s going”.

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Instead, David is surprised to see that they’re headed towards his own house – where he sees Anna mournfully studying the two sleeping girls.  She then fetches a vial of poison out of her handbag, and starts brewing some tea, desparingly planning to kill them all in a murder-suicide.  David begs Georges to do something; he can’t, he says, but realizes that maybe David is now in a place to be able to.  “Spirit, return to your prison,” he intones – sending David’s ghost back into his body, just in time for him to wake up, run home, and prevent Anna from carrying through her plan. He tearfully makes her an apology, promising to reform, and intones the prayer George has taught him earlier in the film – “May my soul not be reaped until it has reached full maturity.”

The structure of the flashback was actually a little clumsy at first – instead of opening with David, we spend a lengthy time in Sister Edit’s sickroom, setting things up there, so it was a little jarring to change gear and realize David was the star of the show.  But once Georges’ ghost shows up in the carriage I’d gotten things sorted out well enough.  There’s also a couple of extended sequences of the Phantom Carriage collecting various souls which were probably put in just for color; they looked cool, especially the one with the carriage riding over the ocean to collect a drowning victim, but didn’t really add to the story.

From a cinematic history perspective, though, I think this may have been the first instance of the trope where you show “soul leaving a body” with a double-exposure of the “body” lying still on the ground, and a see-through “soul” getting up and moving away from it. This was actually the most complicated bit for the filmmakers – they used hand-cranked cameras, so when they filmed each sequence, the cameramen had to try to match the speeds exactly so both exposures would be even.

The Phantom Carriage is said to be one of Ingmar Bergen’s favorites; he first saw it at the age of 15 and made a habit of seeing it once a year ever after.  His own depiction of Death in The Seventh Seal also owed something to Georges’ cloak and scythe in the film.

Feeding Others

On my 25th Birthday, one of my best friends – who lives outside New York – came for an overnight visit. We planned to take a walk through Chinatown and buy up whatever unusual and fascinating food things we could find, and then come back to my apartment and cook it all; I’d put the word out to my other friends that “if you turn up in the afternoon, you will get fed”.  My then-roommate somehow forgot the date and invited his table-top gaming club over for a game that same afternoon, but when they offered to leave I told them “no, you can stay and help us eat all this!”  Ultimately, we had 20 people crammed into my tiny living room, perched on folding chairs and huddled onto the sofa, and one person even had to sit on a step stool because we ran out of anything else.  But I will never forget the sight of all 20 of us, all engaged in the same lively, cross-the-room conversation, plates balanced on all our laps and eating homemade shrimp shumai and mung bean noodles and stir-fried chicken with peppers.

My 47th Birthday was yesterday, and I sought to recreate that birthday a little. I have a bunch of friends I know from all different contexts, and have wanted to introduce them to each other to see what would happen. It’s also the weekend before Mardi Gras, so I put the word out that anyone showing up at my place that afternoon would be fed, and then I got up at about 6 in the morning and started cooking. I went Cajun rather than Chinese this time – jambalaya, corn maque choux, two kinds of red beans and rice, a huge pot of gumbo. By the time the first guest showed up, I’d made the choice to abandon the shrimp etouffe, literally because there was no more room on the buffet table.

I even mail-ordered a King Cake from Gambino’s Bakery in New Orleans, and found a silly bejewelled pair of sunglasses to give to the person who got the baby in the cake.

My friends are the sort to also ask to bring things, but knowing how much food I was making I tried to steer them into simple things, like a spare bottle of soda or a bag of chips. But – rather than getting a single bottle of Sprite, they mail-ordered things – one friend found a web site offering local Louisiana things, and shipped me half a cases’ worth of stuff, including Abita root beer and Bananas Foster soda, and another couple brought a sampler case of different flavor Zapps’ Chips.  Sue couldn’t make it herself (our lives are both a little different than they were when we were 25), but earlier in the week she’d sent me a delightfully silly gift – a five-pound Hershey bar.

I actually wasn’t completely finished cooking by the time the first guests showed up, so I threw them in the living room with the chips and a bowl of peanuts I’d seasoned with a spice blend I’d picked up at a great little shop in New Orleans. I popped out of the kitchen to make basic introductions for people who hadn’t yet met (“So, Jonathan I know from kayaking, and Ian and Gabby I know through a play I did in 2005 – and there’s E, we were on a pub quiz team in the 90s and she just got a job with the library…”) and then just stood back.

And just as I hoped, there was lots of boisterous talk around the room. Jonathan and Gabby compared notes on kayak clubs. Niki asked E for book recommendations. After an hour Ian begged us to keep him away from the peanuts because he’d just eaten half a pounds’ worth.  Colin learned several of the guests hadn’t ever been to New Orleans and made travel recommendations. We passed around shared bottles of the fig soda, but were less brave about the bananas foster soda.  Niki got the King Cake baby. Everyone left well-fed, but there was still an enormous amount of uneaten food, which E blessedly helped me pack away into the fridge before she took off.

I took a closer look at the damage this morning after sleeping late. There’s still an awful lot of the gumbo, which E had thoughtfully doled into smaller ziploc baggies so they could be frozen. It’s a basic greens gumbo, which I can easily add leftover chicken or sausage too; the okra and tomatoes will also work there.  There’s easily enough jambalaya and red beans to see me through two weeks of brown-bag lunches, and the little bags of Zapps’ are perfect for snacks as well.  I did as many of the dishes that my drying rack can hold, and then made a breakfast of shrimp grits before tucking the rest of the shrimp into the freezer too.

I’ve also spent the morning browsing for recipes that use a lot of milk chocolate – I’ll definitely eat some of that huge Hershey bar, but probably not fast enough, and will definitely need to get through some of it by baking.  After only an hour of looking, though, I was already starting to get the idea that maybe another party would be just the thing – only make it all sweets, lots of cupcakes and tarts and cookies and puddings and…and more people in the house, more of the laughter and talking.

When you feed people, I discovered, you also feed yourself.

Deep Breath and Begin

I don’t really make resolutions. I’ve accepted that if I want to make a big change in myself, I need to wait until the desire and pressure has built up to a point where I am about to bust; picking an arbitary date and declaring “I’m going to start here” never has enough motivation behind it, and I fail. Much easier to wait and act whenever the moment rises.

Still, there are a couple things that are coming to me at this moment; a couple big ways where I have seen I could be taking much better care of myself and my life overall.

Cooking and food first. I’ve fallen out of the habit of cooking much for myself – I can throw things together at the last minute, but I’m starting to sneak back into my old theater days habit where “dinner” is a bag of Cheetos and a banana or something, because that’s what’s around the house and I am too exhausted for dinner. Or I’ll go totally the other direction and get a craving for roast chicken or some specific vegetable, and make it for myself – but then I fall prey to the single New Yorker’s curse, where I’ve purchased an entire package of two pounds of beets when I only needed a half pound, and the rest of the package sits in my fridge taking up room and growing slowly mushy.

At some point this weekend, though, the thought hit me that I need to think of my kitchen as a living thing.  It takes in food, and it digests it one way or another – either through my cooking and eating it, or through rot and waste. And then there are all the things that don’t rot, but aren’t getting used and are just taking up space.

So starting this weekend, I’m putting my kitchen, not me, on a diet. I’ll be shopping with a more careful eye on what I already have, how it can be used, and how to use up the leftovers of whatever I make. I’ll be making much more frequent use of my bento and tiffin to take food to work instead of running to the pizza place downstairs. I’ll be much more likely to tuck things in the freezer instead of letting them go bad – and to also rummage in the freezer instead of shopping. I’ll also be making a lot more soup stocks in an effort to use up the herbs that are overrunning my windowsill – and also snagging some of the less-pretty cuttings for things like air fresheners or bath treatments (I made a tea of lemon verbena yesterday, and instead of just tossing the stems, I threw them into a small pot of water and had that simmering on the stove a while; it was quite effective).

Related to that – I’m going to get back into the Calendar Cookery Challenge again. I let that fall after the election, out of sheer depression; but I’ve got to get that going again. Coincidentally, this kind of use-up-what-you-have home cooking kind of fits into the French bistro style, and I’m in a particularly French mood now (a year ago I was in Paris for New Year’s Eve) so I’m going to use Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking for January.  I’ve also splurged (thanks to an Amazon gift card from my brother) on a couple of single-serve Le Creuset dishes to break this in (woot!).

And all of this is going to ultimately be more frugal in the long run – which feeds into the second resolution, to get out of the damn house more often again. I’ve never been that well off – I’ve unfortunately had three separate periods of unemployment, none of them through my own doing, but all still seriously discouraging. After three times of having a job pulled out from under you because of company cutbacks, you find yourself bracing for impact all the time, doubting whether you should go to a coffee shop or buy a book for yourself because “what if I lose my job next week, I’ll need that ten dollars”. My current job is considerably more stable than others I’ve had – but could still pay a bit better, and I end up having to dip into savings much, much more than I’d like.  That’s made me much more likely to stay home and not do much of anything, out of some weird effort to conserve subway fare/lunch  money/laundry money/what have you.

But it’s damn depressing, and it’s started to starve me as a writer. Sheer fatigue is one big reason I haven’t written much in the past several months – but the other is the feeling that I have nothing to say. And the reason I have nothing to say is entirely because I haven’t taken myself out to look at things and meet people and read other things myself. That’s one big reason I’ve started doing the Movie Crash Course, just to give myself art to look at (I’ve got the Netflix account, let’s acutally make it work).  And when it warms up a bit more I’ll be heading back out into the parks and woods around the city, hiking more and exploring more there (thanks to some gear from EMS through another gift card from the parents!).

So. My roommate Sam has been out of town all week, and I used the time to give the fridge a good and critical cleaning. I made my usual New Year’s Day black-eyed peas and greens, but the greens came from the freezer. And the frozen tomato puree next to it got turned into a marinara sauce I can use for dinners this week if I’m falling-down tired, especially when I throw in some of the extra sausage from the package I got for a soup that’s simmering in the crock pot today. That soup and the peas-and-greens will do me well for bag lunches at work this week, and some other soups still in the fridge (squash, borscht, split pea) will all be great first courses for dinners too – and for that, I got a couple cheap packs of chicken breasts and pork chops and a bag of potatoes (there are about fifteen gratin recipes in the Wells cookbook alone).  And there’s a point today at which the soup will need to be set on “simmer” for a full five hours, which will be just enough time to slip out to a matinee at a nearby movie house.

Let’s see how far these good intentions carry me.

 

 

The Least We Can Do

We’ve all heard, by now, of the rash of racist or sexist or Islamophobic incidents that broke out across the country the day after the election. To my dismay, I learned that there were two that happened where I went to college; someone wrote “TRUMP!’ in huge letters on the door to the prayer room at the engineering college, and later that day, a student taunted three high-school-age girls in an elevator by repeatedly using the n-word and saying “I can say whatever I want now because Trump won”.

I heard about it through a friend’s Facebook post, and initially shook my head. Then had the urge to write a letter.  Then realized – I know a lot of other alums through Facebook. And they know other alums.  What if we all signed that letter?  I announced my intent on Facebook, tagged all the alums I knew, and urged them to tell me if they wanted to sign it too.  And sure enough, a bunch of them “liked” my post, and one even tagged a whole bunch of other people right away.

But…that was it, for most of them. I only got eight other people to join me, out of about twenty who learned about it.  And I’m grateful to those who joined me, but…it’s still not what I was hoping.

We have all gotten used to an automated way to participate in community now. We’re on Facebook instead of catching up over coffee or on the phone. We “share this picture of the Vietnam Memorial” to support veterans rather than actually pitching in at the VFW. We sign online petitions rather than paper ones.

There are those who would say that the Internet makes it easy to participate in the civic discussion – but that’s the thing, it’s made it too easy. Or rather, too easy to feel like we did something.  It’s too easy to change your avatar to a picture of a cartoon character or the Eiffel Tower, or to say “Je Suis Charlie”, or share the photo meme that scolds you that “I bet only 2% of the people who see this will share this photo of a German Shepard because no one cares!” And so most of us click share and maybe type something, and then go on with our day – without expending even the few extra seconds of second thought to realize that sharing a photo of a German Shepard on the internet has absolutely no currency in the real world.

And right now, that kind of slacktivism isn’t going to cut it. Real world impact is going to take real world action. Especially now.

The good news, though – it won’t necessarily require that much impact. Most of us opt for this kind of Facebook activism because the problems seem so big and outside the reach of an individual person. But according to a former Congressional staffer, who went online with advice on Twitter a few days ago, all it takes is phone calls.  And you don’t even have to pay long distance to call Washington – the district office is not only just fine, it may be even better.  And really, this is what you sent them to office to do – represent you. And the way they figure out how to represent you is if you tell them.

While I was still waiting for incoming signatures, I got into a text exchange with a friend (I’ll spare her name). We briefly talked about going to the Womens’ March on Washington the day after Election Day, but a couple of bad experiences at marches had me a little uneasy, and she confessed she was only thinking of it out of a need to do something.  It was early in the morning, and we both had work to get to, so we left it at that.

Then a couple hours later she texted me again. She announced she was about to make a phone call to her state legislature about an issue that was affecting her business.  Then five minutes later, another text – they’d told her it was a federal issue.  So she was going to make more calls.  She called her representative, both her Senators, and a couple other places.  And then most likely hyperventilated and had some wine because she hates using the phone, almost as much as she hates drawing attention to herself (I was in her wedding party, and before the processional I was trying to get her to sing “Chantilly Lace” with me to stave off a panic attack).

This was an enormous act of courage, and I told her so. It was also a constituent exercising her right with the most effective means possible and demanding her right to be represented by the people in power. But – it was also just three phone calls.  That was all.

It is time to raise the bar on “the least we can do” and get back to real activism.

 

Presisedivacantism

People tend to have the idea that Catholics are a monolithic, and largely conservative, entity.  And they are totally not – there are all sorts of little groups mixed in there, like the religious orders you’ve heard of (Franciscans, Dominicans, Jesuits like Pope Francis) and lots of other little zany fringe groups, ranging from the super-liberal group that made Sinead O’Connor a priest to super-conservative groups with conspiracy theories that would make Dan Brown say “….dude. Y’all gotta calm down.”

One group – which is actually pretty big – is the Sedevacantists.  Sedevacantism was founded in the wake of Vatican II, the series of papal-sponsored conferences meant to modernize the Catholic church a little.  A lot of the old Catholic traditions – fast days, meatless Fridays, speaking the Mass in Latin – were relaxed, or wholly done away with.

It is human nature, though, that whenever any group of people makes a huge change, there are people who preferred things the way they were before. “Traditionalist Catholics” reserved the right to keep the old customs; and as far as the Vatican was concerned, no problem.  If there’s a parish somewhere where there’s enough call for a Latin Mass at noon on Sundays, after the English one in the morning, and the priest knows Latin, then great.  Traditionalist Catholics still aren’t crazy about the changes to the church, but they’re sort of grumbling to themselves about them.

The Sedevacantists, meanwhile, go beyond simply grumbling. The term comes from the Latin sede vacante, or “empty seat” – and refers to the Sedevacantist position that Pope John XXIII’s even calling for the Second Vatican Council made him a heretic, and therefore none of the popes that have come after him since 1963 have counted.  As far as they’re concerned, the Papacy has just been empty all this time. A couple of small parishes have gone a step further and elected their own popes; there’s one guy in Oklahoma City, Pope Michael, who was canonized by his parents in 1990.  (I am not making this up.)

…I say all of this to describe the strange sort of shrugging disregard I find that I’m giving to the election now.  Not that I am shrugging about the whole thing – I’m writing a couple of activism letters, I’m looking into volunteering at a writing program here in the city, and my friend Sue is talking me into going to the women’s March on Washington in January.  But the reason I’m doing all of that is…because I’ve just decided to disregard the existence of the President altogether. I have to step up and take action to protect people because the Oval Office will be an empy office for four years.

Machiavelli Laughed

I have been pretty quiet about the election lately.  Part of that is because I just plain ran out of coping power and had to turn away from this election for a while to share my sanity.  But part of my silence is the reason why I had to stop looking – because  the things this election has uncovered about this country disgust me.

I should be celebrating tonight.  I should be feeling genuine joy if, as I suspect, Hillary Clinton becomes the first woman to become president.  And I’ll have things to say about that in time. I celebrated wildly when Obama was elected the first time – I was crowded in a bar with strangers watching the results, and was first in the place to learn that the press had just called the race for him. The place when silent for a moment when I shrieked “THEY CALLED IT!” and then erupted in screams and cheers and shouts. Five strangers hugged me. The bartender put disco music on the stereo, and a gang of us ran out onto the street where the party was going on outside too.  My favorite sight was seeing two women who had each brought out huge American flags and were doing a spontaneous majorette routine in the middle of Myrtle Avenue while I was inside dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire at 12:30 am.

And there will be celebrating tonight too, as well there should be.  But I will not be out on the street – at least, not without an ear cocked just in case. Because this election has uncovered, nurtured, and encouraged the ugliness in the hearts of the people who weren’t celebrating that night.

The thing that gave me the most hope about Obama’s acceptance speech that night was his commitment to working with his opponent’s supporters.  “…to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.” And instead of listening, a lot of people went against him every single blessed step of the way.

And so when Trump offered himself as an option for president, they flocked to him – he validated their particular brand of crazy. And with that validation came courage and a total lack of shame. And threats. And violence at campaign events. And threatening t-shirts and booby-traps and anti-Semitism.

The Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign are both having their election night events here in New York City. If Trump loses, these are not people I expect to go quietly. If Trump wins, even, these are not people I expect to celebrate calmly.  I am well and truly worried about what is going to happen in this city once the results are called.

Which is keeping me from celebrating Hillary tonight. She could be president, but some of the citizens are hell-bent against that – and they’re going to make sure we all know it.

A New Blog!

So, this blog is old enough to now have a baby sister.

I have been thinking more about wanting to get outside more often, explore more, get more into camping or hiking or checking out corners of the city.  But what stopped me was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing.  And it hit me finally – I can learn that.

Also, I felt like if I had someone else to watch learning, I wouldn’t feel quite so alone. So – I will BE that person for someone else, I hope.

And thus I am announcing – Outdoors, Woman!  a second blog, devoted to my efforts at turning myself into a hikin’ and campin’ naturalist that I kind of secretly always wanted to be.

I’ll keep this blog too – that’s just going to be about the outdoors stuff, and this will be more for general life.

But go check that out too!