Friday, December 20, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part IV: The Santa Claus of Charles Marion Russell


Well, of course we here at The Jade Cactus The Jade Sphinx could not let the Christmas season pass without a nod from our favorite cowboy artist.

We have written about self-proclaimed ‘cowboy artist’ Charles Russell (1864-1926) before.  Last year were read his letters and diary snippets, and was delighted to find how wonderfully boyish and enthusiastic Russell was in person.  Russell never fully grew-up and he often approached his life, like his art, with a child-like sense of wonder.

So it comes as no surprise that Russell loved the Christmas season.  He would often retreat into his studio weeks before the holiday, designing his Christmas card(s), writing letters to close friends and oft-times painting a holiday-themed picture. 

This holiday Christmas painting showcases Russell’s most whimsical side: a cowpuncher riding a storm at night and seeing, faint in the distance, Santa Claus and his sleigh.

For true Santaologists like your correspondent, perhaps one of the most fascinating things about Big Red (as we call him in our household) is just how fleeting and ephemeral a figure he can be.  As we have seen from the different interpretations of Santa Claus, the great man is a great many things to a great number of people.  It is this elusive quality of Santa – this inability to pin him down and fully get a view of him, that keep him so mysterious, so compelling and so powerful a figure.

Charlie plays with this idea in his 1918 painting.  Santa can be seen – just – in the snowy distance.  Maybe.  Even our cowboy hero in the foreground, startled by this visitation of the fantastic on the cold plains, is uncertain of what he sees.

As with all things Russell, the composition, coloration and emotional impact of the picture are stunning.  Even with a holiday jape, he is nothing short of masterful.

And, the psychology is just correct – Santa is always best seen in the distance.  Tantalizing enough to be almost there, but never enough to be captured, measured and diminished by our science.


And that, more than anything else, is the mystery and magic of Santa Claus.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part III: The Santa Claus of William Joyce



Today, we actually get two Santa Clauses for a single entry as we look at the work of William Joyce (born 1957).

Joyce took the publishing world by storm in the late 1980s-early 1990s with a series of picture books, including Dinosaur Bob (1988), A Day With Wilbur Robinson (1990), and his Christmas book, Santa Calls (1993).

Though Joyce has expanded his talents into film and television production, it is his picture books that I perhaps love the best, and Santa Calls most of all.  It tells the story of Arthur Atchinson Aimesworth, boy inventor, cowboy and amateur adventurer.  With his sidekick, Spaulding Littlefeets, and his sister, Esther, he goes from Abilene, Texas to Santa’s Toyland at the North Pole.  There, Esther is kidnapped by the Dark Queen and her evil elves, and it is up to Art, Santa and the rest of the gang to rescue her.

In summary, it does not sound like much – but in execution, it is nothing short of magnificent.  I have long considered Santa Calls to be Joyce’s masterpiece, and it is a story that I seem to see with fresh eyes every year.

First off, Joyce’s talents as an illustrator were never put to better effect.  The entire book is suffused with a creamy, subtle color strongly reminiscent of the Golden Age of Illustration.  (Without a publication date, anyone coming to the book with fresh eyes could easily mistake it as a work from the 1930s or 1940s.)  True to his art deco aesthetic, Joyce reimagines Santa as a North Pole dandy, complete with flowing red frock coat (trimmed with white), striped off-white vest and dashing monocle.  And his Toyland is filled with gadgets both wondrous and fabulous.  This should not be surprising – as one of Joyce’s inspirations was… James Bond.  Joyce conceived of Santa as an older gadgeteer, and his workshop much like the highly-mechanized fortresses found in the Bond films.  Double-Ho Seven, indeed.



His Toyland – where the motto is The Best of the Old, The Best of the New, The Best That Is Yet To Be – is a major feat of imagination.  Inspired by both the spacious and ornate dreamlands found in Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo strips, it also nods its head at the Emerald City of Oz.  However, with its floodlights, bow-tied elephants, Santa-shaped buildings and walking beds… it rather makes the Emerald City look like Dubuque.

The action zips along as quickly as a Robin Hood adventure, and is richly garnished with Joycean pop culture references to everything from Punjab in Little Orphan Annie to silent screen cowboy Tom Mix to the pets found in Doc Savage.  But through it all beats a warm and generous heart, and I guarantee that this overstuffed and gorgeously designed book will leave you weepy at the final revelation.  It is my favorite Christmas picture book.

Joyce has revisited Santa in his overarching cosmology – the Guardians of Childhood.  This is his effort to tell the origin story of such childhood touchstones as Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, among others.  Here, Santa is a reformed Cossack bandit, who learns magic and compassion from the wizard, Ombric.  Though the series is not yet complete, we see some of what Santa will become – in the latest installment, he has already started construction of his Toyland.  This Santa is a dashing, reformed brigand.  He has a sense of style and the dramatic, and is more an adventurer at this point of the series than anything else.  Armed with swords or a robotic genie, this Santa is ready for all comers in his efforts to protect his band of Guardians, and we see the nurturing, patriarchal side of the man emerge.  It is an interesting transformation, and we wonder how Joyce will end the series.

In the film version released last year, Rise of the Guardians, Santa was voiced by Alec Baldwin, in what has to be the voice performance of the decade.  It is perfect holiday fare, and as Christmas approaches, you could not do better than spending it with the Guardians of Childhood.

One Last Santa Tomorrow!


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part II: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)


For many of us, our first movie experience of Santa Claus is in the holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street (1947).  This film has been heralded as a classic for a variety of reasons – its sweet and humane nature, its wonderful performances, and its simple message of faith.  It was written and directed by George Seaton (1911-1979), who also wrote for the Marx Brothers and provided the voice of the radio’s Lone Ranger, and was based on a story by Valentine Davies (1905-1961). 

For those who came in late – Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) comes to New York to see if there are any vestiges of the Christmas Spirit to be found in then-contemporary America.  She gets a job “playing” Santa at Macy’s – where he sends customers to other stores if it is in their best interest.

He also becomes involved with Macy’s employee Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), a divorcee raising her daughter Susan (Natalie Wood).  Walker is a hard-headed realist; not only doesn’t she believe in Santa Claus, but thinks Susan should not clutter her head with irrelevant intangibles. 

Santa playing himself at Macy’s turns out to be a tremendous coup for the store, and Kris takes a spare room in the apartment of Fred Gailey (John Payne), Walker’s beau.  Before long, people come to doubt Kringle’s sanity, and he is put on trail in Manhattan court.  Gailey comes to his defense, and this leads to a great deal of wrangling over the questions of reality, of sanity and the nature of the Christmas Spirit by the Judge, (Gene Lockhart), the District Attorney (Jerome Cowan) and the Judge’s political advisor (William Frawley).

By any critical yardstick, Miracle on 34th Street is a magnificent picture.  Gwenn won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and the film captured Oscars for Best Writing/Original Story for Valentine Davies and Best Writing/Screenplay for George Seaton.  Though nominated for best picture, it lost to Gentleman’s Agreement – yet another instance of the good folks at the Academy getting it wrong.

There are many reasons the film works so well on so many levels.  First off, the performances are spot on.  Not just Gwenn (1877-1959), O’Hara (born 1920) and Wood (1938-1981), but the other supporting cast, as well.  Payne (1912-1989) plays the honest lawyer hero as an American Everyman, a type that was recognizable in countless films of the era, but now gone thanks to the corrosive effects of multiculturalism.  His easy charm, sense of decency and commitment to ‘the little guy’ were all tropes of what it meant to be an American Everyman, and it’s a delight to watch him. 

However, for your correspondent, the best performances were from supporting players Lockhart (1891-1957), Cowan (1897-1972) and Frawley (1887-1966).  Lockhart, as a decent judge in an uncomfortable position, is a joy to watch – in fact, he elicits our deepest sympathy.  Cowan, as the hard-bitten DA, is a delight.  This fine actor was in countless movies of the era (for example, as Humphrey Bogart’s partner in The Maltese Falcon), and his breezy playing and city-slicker veneer are superb.  However, acting honors must go to Frawley, as the Judge’s advisor.  An old New York type not seen anymore, Frawley is an operator and wise guy.  Here, for example, is Frawley and Lockhart before a possible ruling on Santa’s sanity:

Frawley: All right, you go back and tell them that the New York State Supreme Court rules there’s no Santa Claus.  It’s all over the papers. The kids read it and they don’t hang up their stockings.  Now what happens to all the toys that are supposed to be in those stockings?  Nobody buys them.  The toy manufacturers are going to like that; so they have to lay off a lot of their employees, union employees.  Now you got the CIO and the AF of L against you and they’re going to adore you for it and they’re going to say it with votes.  Oh, and the department stores are going to love you too and the Christmas card makers and the candy companies. Ho ho. Henry, you’re going to be an awful popular fella.  And what about the Salvation Army?  Why, they got a Santa Claus on every corner, and they’re taking a fortune.  But you go ahead Henry, you do it your way.  You go on back in there and tell them that you rule there is no Santy Claus. Go on. But if you do, remember this: you can count on getting just two votes, your own and that district attorney’s out there.

Lockhart: The District Attorney’s a Republican.

And that, more than anything, I think, is why this film works so wonderfully well.  It’s not just a warm-hearted fantasy, it’s a hard-bitten screwball comedy.  Screwball, in the 1930s and 1940s, was a delicate mixture of the sentimental and the cynical.  One could not overwhelm the other, but both must be present in the brew.  In fact, it’s important to remember that no Christmas miracle rides in to save the day.  Rather, harried New York postal workers (at one time, it seems that they actually did something), send their Santa letters in the dead letter office to Kringle at the courthouse simply to get rid of them, and a grateful Judge finds that sufficient to acquit Kringle while still saving face.  Or, if you would … a cynical miracle.

Even better, Seaton’s screenplay is written in that delicious – and vanished – American idiom of the time.  That patois had a distinct, rat-a-tat-tat rhythm, and anyone listening can catch the cadence in classic screwball comedies.  American English, like American movies and music and radio and fiction of the time, had a distinct voice – breezy, confident, smart-alecky and down-to-earth.  We lost that rhythmic poetry in the 1960s, when we seemed to lose so much of our national identity along with everything else, but it is one of our great contributions to language.  (My favorite line?  This: But maybe he's only a little crazy... like painters or composers... or some of those men in Washington…)

As Alfred, the janitor at Macy’s laments, Yeah, there's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism.  Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it's the same - don't care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck.  What Miracle on 34th Street says is that even in this jaded, cynical and commercial world in which we find ourselves, intangible mysteries surround us.  And if a bunch of hard-boiled Gothamites believe… so should you.

Tomorrow: The Santa Claus of William Joyce!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Who Is Your Santa, Part I: The Santa Claus of Rankin/Bass


Because we spend so much time on Christmas here at The Jade Sphinx, I was recently asked by a waggish fellow if I believed in Santa Claus.

Well, to the disappointment of many of you, I have to confess, that, yes, I do believe in Santa Claus.  Always have, always will.  Deal with it.

Let me be clear here – this is not errant whimsicality, nor is it a touch of seasonal madness.  No, I emphatically and completely believe.  I believe in the North Pole workshop, the elves, Mrs. Claus (a shadowy figure, though), and in his Christmas Eve ride.

Before some of my more conservative readers call for the local giggle wagon, let me point out that eight in 10 Americans believe completely and absolutely in angels.  Personally, a belief in Santa Claus makes infinitely more sense.  There is less dogma, fewer conscriptions and, frankly, the message is more positive.  I have a Santa pin on my lapel, much as many sport an angel at this time of year, and I cannot help but think I am ahead in the game.

Of course, the belief in Santa offers a variety of interpretation.  Just as the Gospels contradict themselves, so the story of Santa and his origin differ depending on who is telling the tale.

While nursing a cold this weekend, I spent several hours in the delightful company of my DVD player, re-watching many of the Christmas specials produced by Rankin/Bass.  Surely you remember them – they were animated puppets, often with charming musical numbers, and a sense of interwoven mythology.

The puppet animation was called AniMagic, but actually is was stop-motion animation, much as it was practiced (more expertly) by the late Ray Harryhausen.  The Rankin/Bass animation was always a mixed bag, but the charm of the story and the communal sense of holiday cheer did much to improve it.

I was thinking about their representation of Santa Claus after watching two of the best Rankin/Bass holiday specials, Santa Claus is Coming To Town (1970) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974).  Santa Claus is Coming To Town was narrated by the great Fred Astaire (1899-1987), with Mickey Rooney (born 1920) providing the voice of Santa.  The second, The Year Without a Santa Claus, was narrated by Shirley Booth (1898-1992) as Mrs. Claus, with Rooney returning as Santa.  Many of the other voices were provided by a single actor, the great voice actor Paul Frees (1920-1986).

In Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Santa is a foundling, left in the care of the government; specifically local official the Burgermeister Meisterburger.  But Meisterburger has no interest in the people under his care, and has the child sent to the orphan asylum.  Fortunately, the baby Claus is lost in a storm and ends up in the home of elves, the Kringles, who raise him as one of their own.

The Kringles are toymakers, and their isolation from society is a great thing for the baby, whom the name Kris.  He is taught by the Kringles, but also by the forest animals.  When he travels to Sombertown to distribute toys, he has no idea what he is stepping into.

Because years ago, the Burgermiester Meisterburger outlawed toys.  When Kris comes to Sombertown to do good, he is actually breaking the law.  During a run-in with school-teacher Jessica (who later becomes Mrs. Claus), he cautions about a toy, “careful, that toy is a hardened criminal.”

Of course, the Burgermeister Meisterburger does his best to keep Kris from distributing his toys.  Corrupt officials and an out-of-control police break into homes without warrant to search for toys.  Fortunately, Kris invents new stratagems (leaving them in stockings) to avoid detection, but eventually he, the Kringles and their friend, the Winter Warlock (Keenan Wynn – another star from the MGM-era), are all arrested and thrown into prison.

Jessica breaks them out of stir with some flying reindeer engineered by the Winter Warlock, and Kris becomes an outlaw – with wanted posters everywhere.  He grows a beard to escape detection.

In time, Kris becomes a beloved figure of children everywhere, and the Burgermeister Meisterburger, and his laws, are relegated to the dust heaps of history.

This is, of course, a radical telling of the Santa Claus origin story – and one that could only have been possible after the tumultuous, anti-establishment 1960s.  Santa’s nemesis is not a figure of fantasy or magic, but government control run amuck, unjust laws and political leaders who have broken their covenant with the people.  While watching it, I found the whole thing eerily prescient, as if I were looking at a parable on the ruinous and unjust US “War on Drugs (Terror/Whatever),” or a fantasy version of the New York City Police Department under Ray Kelly (born 1941).  It is not too huge a leap to see Santa as the heroic Edward Snowden (born 1983) and the Burgermeister Meisterburger as our current Imperial President.

In The Year Without a Santa Claus, Santa and Jessica are now quite elderly and secure in their fame and position in the world.  However, the older Santa has come down with a bad cold and his doctor tells him that no one cares if he comes or not, and that the Christmas Spirit no longer exists.

Mrs. Claus then sends two elves, Jingle and Jangle, down to the American South (Southtown, to be precise) to look for holiday cheer to convince Santa to make his annual Christmas trek.  They are promptly given a ticket by an overzealous cop (for, among other things, dressing “funny”), and their reindeer is carted off to the dog pound.

Of course Santa must don his civilian clothes (a fetching red bowler hat, deep red vest and red-and-white striped pants) and set things right.  At the same time, Jingle and Jangle manage to get the Mayor of Southtown to declare a national holiday for the ailing Santa by – essentially – bribing him with a snowstorm.

What is fascinating here is that Santa often rails about conditions “down there,” meaning the real world of ours.  What both specials tacitly imply is that Santa Claus is a figure that cannot function in the real world.  His heart is too warm and too open, his point of view too alien, and his sense of right-and-wrong often at odds with laws, regulations and political ambitions.  It is not that he could only function in a fairyland; no, indeed, he can only successfully function in a world of his own creation.  Santa’s home in the North Pole is alternately seen as a castle, a factory, and a nascent city of his own design.  In his own element and at a remove, without the taint of the everyday world, Santa can continue to do good for the children of the world.
 
The Santa of Rankin/Bass is a Santa too good for this world of ours, one who must butt heads against authority, unjust laws, callus cruelty and down-home stupidity simply by being who he is.  It is, of course, a late 20th Century construct, and the Santa of my imagination is very often the rebel of Rankin/Bass.

Tomorrow: Santa goes anti-corporate in Miracle on 34th Street.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan, by Clement A. Miles (1913)


No one who is seriously interested in Christmas can afford to overlook this cornerstone book by Clement A. Miles, first published in 1913.  Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is a remarkable read for the folklorist, the casual Christmas buff, or the historian.

Miles traces mid-winter festivals that date back to our most ancient times, and shows how ascendant Christianity took the traditions, motifs and sentiments of these celebrations and melded them into the splendid Christian holiday that resonates today.  I quickly point out here that Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is not a revisionist, anti-Christian work; rather, this is the deeply detailed and researched work of a folklorist who looks at the many parts of our contemporary Christmas and traces them back to their earliest roots.  It is fascinating.

Miles spends some time in his explication of the three traditions of Christmas – Christmas, Noel and Yule – and then reveals the origins of many beloved Christmas traditions, including the Christmas tree, carols, the Yule log, feasting and various games still played around the holiday hearth.

Sadly, your correspondent has not been able to learn much about Miles.  He died on February 2nd, 1918 at only 37 years of age.  He was a member of the Folk-Lore Society, and had for many years been on T. Fisher Unwin’s literary staff.  Miles also worked for the Friends’ War Victims’ Relief Committee, and possessed a wide knowledge of European languages, translated Sabatier’s Modernism and other works from the French, and was co-translator from the Italian of Gayda’s Modern Austria: Her Racial and Social Problems. His early death was clearly a great loss to anyone interested in history or folklore.

Here is a quote from Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan that best provides a bit of the flavor of the book:
Before we pass on to the pagan aspects of Christmas, let us gather up our thoughts in an attempt to realize the peculiar appeal of the Feast of the Nativity, as it has been felt in the past, as it is felt to-day even by moderns who have no belief in the historical truth of the story it commemorates.
This appeal of Christmas seems to lie in the union of two modes of feeling which may be called the carol spirit and the mystical spirit. The carol spirit—by this we may understand the simple, human joyousness, the tender and graceful imagination, the kindly, intimate affection, which have gathered round the cradle of the Christ Child. The folk-tune, the secular song adapted to a sacred theme—such is the carol. What a sense of kindliness, not of sentimentality, but of genuine human feeling, these old songs give us, as though the folk who first sang them were more truly comrades, more closely knit together than we under modern industrialism.
One element in the carol spirit is the rustic note that finds its sanction as regards Christmas in St. Luke's story of the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. One thinks of the stillness over the fields, of the hinds with their rough talk, “simply chatting in a rustic row,” of the keen air, and the great burst of light and song that dazes their simple wits, of their journey to Bethlehem where “the heaven-born Child all meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies,” of the ox and ass linking the beasts of the field to the Christmas adoration of mankind.

For many people, indeed, the charm of Christmas is inseparably associated with the country; it is lost in London—the city is too vast, too modern, too sophisticated. It is bound up with the thought of frosty fields, of bells heard far away, of bare trees against the starlit sky, of carols sung not by trained choirs but by rustic folk with rough accent, irregular time, and tunes learnt by ear and not by book.
Again, without the idea of winter half the charm of Christmas would be gone. Transplanted in the imagination of western Christendom from an undefined season in the hot East to Europe at midwinter, the Nativity scenes have taken on a new pathos with the thought of the bitter cold to which the great Little One lay exposed in the rough stable, with the contrast between the cold and darkness of the night and the fire of love veiled beneath that infant form. Lux in tenebris is one of the strongest notes of Christmas: in the bleak midwinter a light shines through the darkness; when all is cold and gloom, the sky bursts into splendour, and in the dark cave is born the Light of the World.
There is the idea of royalty too, with all it stands for of colour and magnificence, though not so much in literature as in painting is this side of the Christmas story represented. The Epiphany is the great opportunity for imaginative development of the regal idea. Then is seen the union of utter poverty with highest kingship; the monarchs of the East come to bow before the humble Infant for whom the world has found no room in the inn. How suggestive by their long, slow syllables are the Italian names of the Magi. Gasparre, Baldassarre, Melchiorre—we picture Oriental monarchs in robes mysteriously gorgeous, wrought with strange patterns, heavy with gold and precious stones. With slow processional motion they advance, bearing to the King of Kings their symbolic gifts, gold for His crowning, incense for His worship, myrrh for His mortality, and with them come the mystery, colour, and perfume of the East, the occult wisdom which bows itself before the revelation in the Child.
Above all, as the foregoing pages have shown, it is the childhood of the Redeemer that has won the heart of Europe for Christmas; it is the appeal to the parental instinct, the love for the tender, weak, helpless, yet all-potential babe, that has given the Church's festival its strongest hold. And this side of Christmas is penetrated often by the mystical spirit—that sense of the Infinite in the finite without which the highest human life is impossible.

The feeling for Christmas varies from mere delight in the Christ Child as a representative symbol on which to lavish affection, as a child delights in a doll, to the mystical philosophy of Eckhart, in whose Christmas sermons the Nativity is viewed as a type of the Birth of God in the depths of man's being. Yet even the least spiritual forms of the cult of the Child are seldom without some hint of the supersensual, the Infinite, and even in Eckhart there is a love of concrete symbolism. Christmas stands peculiarly for the sacramental principle that the outward and visible is a sign and shadow of the inward and spiritual. It means the seeing of common, earthly things shot through by the glory of the Infinite. “Its note,” as has been said of a stage of the mystic consciousness, the Illuminative Way, “is sacramental not ascetic. It entails ... the discovery of the Perfect One ablaze in the Many, not the forsaking of the Many in order to find the One ... an ineffable radiance, a beauty and a reality never before suspected, are perceived by a sort of clairvoyance shining in the meanest things.” Christmas is the festival of the Divine Immanence, and it is natural that it should have been beloved by the saint and mystic whose life was the supreme manifestation of the Via Illuminativa, Francis of Assisi.
Christmas is the most human and lovable of the Church's feasts. Easter and Ascensiontide speak of the rising and exaltation of a glorious being, clothed in a spiritual body refined beyond all comparison with our natural flesh; Whitsuntide tells of the coming of a mysterious, intangible Power—like the wind, we cannot tell whence It cometh and whither It goeth; Trinity offers for contemplation an ineffable paradox of Pure Being. But the God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished. Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merrymaking; and in some degree the memory of the Incarnation has been able to blend with the pagan joyance of the New Year.
Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan is available at Project Gutenberg, and the invaluable www.ManyBooks.net.  It is essential reading for Christmas.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Christmas Comes to Loew’s Jersey City


Perhaps part of the reason there are so many bad films today is because we have so degraded the experience of going to the movies.  It’s important for everyone hustled into small, cramped theaters, looking at tiny screens, or gagging on trailers to remember that going to the movies was once serious business.

People dressed to go the movies.  Often, live performances would accompany a film, either with film stars making personal appearances or bandleaders playing before and after the show.  And because movies were so plentiful and affordable, people went all the time.  While these days barely 75 major films are released a year, in the 1930s and 1940s, some 500 films would be released.  Yes, that number was 500!

And movie-going was the great American secular religion.  It made gods out of names that still resonate mightily: John Wayne (1907-1979), Fred Astaire (1899-1987), Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957), Judy Garland (1922-1969), Bette Davis (1908-1989) and Greta Garbo (1905-1990), for example.  And, like most religions, it demanded the right ambiance for the sacrament to take place.  And that … led to the creation of Picture Palaces.

There are very few of them today, but movie theaters were often built along the lines of cathedrals.  They were filled with grand (or simply ornate) architecture, they were constructed on colossal scale and they were designed to be a sacred space.  Entering a Picture Palace of old was to enter another realm – where dreams came true, good triumphed over evil, and movies were worthwhile.

Most of these Picture Palaces did not survive the change in the movie business that started in the 1950s and lasted through the 1970s.  In the 50s, movies faced stiff competition from television, and as fewer movies were produced, more and more Picture Palaces found that the economics of supporting such a vast piece of real estate was no longer feasible.  Most went under the wrecking ball, to survive only in cherished memories, while some smaller movie houses were sub-divided into multiplexes. 

Fortunately for New York-area readers, one Picture Palace still remains, and is the focus of a volunteer-supported base of film and live-performance buffs.  The Loew’s Jersey City first opened in September 1929, one of five “Loew’s Wonder Theatres” that opened during 1929-1930.  At that time, Journal Square in Jersey City was a popular entertainment and shopping destination.  Loew’s Jersey City cost $2 million 1929 dollars to build – and ticket prices were first 35 cents. 

The initial plan for Loew’s was to run live theatre performance as well as films.  The stage of the theatre was equipped with a full counterweighted fly system with the 50'-0" wide screen rigged to be flown in and out. In front of the stage, a three segment orchestra pit was installed. One segment, on left side of the pit as viewed from the audience, contained the pipe organ console. The organ lift could rise independently and rotate. The remaining width of the orchestra pit could also rise, lifting the orchestra up to the stage level. The third segment was an integrated piano lift in the center of the orchestra lift that could either rise independently or with the orchestra lift.

Loew’s hit its nadir in the 1980s; the last first-run film to play there was Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives.  Plans were soon announced to demolish the building, but it subsequently sold to the city of Jersey City, after which volunteers began the restoration project.  The house had been broken into a multiplex, and volunteers restored mechanical systems while the Garden State Theatre Organ Society acquired a sister pipe organ to the match the original.

This wonderland echoes with memories.  I know people who were there for live performances of Frank Sinatra, Martin and Lewis, Abbot and Costello and Kirk Douglas.  I first went to Loew’s in the early 1990s for a screening of This Island Earth (1955).  Volunteers had just begun to reclaim this lost treasure, and the film was actually shown in the lobby.  Since then, the theatre auditorium proper has been largely restored, creating a premium theatre experience.  In the past few years, your correspondent has seen films as diverse as A Christmas Carol (1951), March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934), Pearl of Death (1944), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) – with Ray Harryhausen in attendance, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Psycho (1960) and many others.

This Christmas, the Friends of Loew’s (as the volunteers are called) have several special treats in store.  On Saturday, December 14, Santa Claus will appear in the lobby from Noon till 3:00 PM.  The visit with Santa is free, and digital photos are available for only $4.  Visitors who bring a new hat, scarf, pair of gloves or warm socks for the Winter Warmth Drive for the Homeless can have their picture for free.

That evening starting at 6:30, Loew’s hosts a concert and sing-along of popular holiday music, performed by Taresa Blunda, Howard Richman, the Choir of St. Dominic’s Academy and the Brass Ensemble of the JC Arts High School with Bernie Anderson at the Wonder Organ.  And that treat is followed by a screening of the original Miracle on 34th Street, starring Edmund Gwenn, Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood.  Tickets for both the concert and film are only $14 for adults and $7 for children and seniors.

The Friends of Loew’s have been working for nearly two decades to both restore this theater to its former glory, and to establish it as a premiere revival house and performance space.  But they can’t do it alone.  Readers are encouraged to go to events held at Loew’s, or to provide support in terms of work or donations.  You can get more information at www.loewsjersey.org, or by calling (201) 798-6055.

For those of you who will be joining me on Saturday, Loew’s Jersey City is located at 54 Journal Square, Jersey City, right across from JFK Blvd and the PATH Station.

Merry Christmas!


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett


Readers of this blog know of my boundless admiration for the artistry of both Ian McKellen (born 1939) and Patrick Stewart (born 1940), two of the finest actors of their generation.  So, it was with some qualms that I learned that these two great knights of the theater were coming to Broadway in a double act, but not in, say Othello or Becket … or even in The Sunshine Boys or The Odd Couple … but in two modernist plays, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

We found No Man’s Land to be intriguing, despite our deep and abiding trouble with this maddeningly oblique and mannered play.  So how do McKellen and Stewart fare with what is consider the classic absurdist comedy?

In Waiting for Godot, two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wait in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot.  Aside from the fact that both men have seen better days, we know nothing of them.  Indeed, we know nothing of Godot, or of where the two men are, and why they are waiting. Or even what Godot means to them.  In fact, it almost seems as if Pinter provided a wealth of information in No Man’s Land provided compared to what we are told by Beckett in Godot.

This, of course, has led to endless interpretations of what the play “means” since its first premiere in Paris in 1953.  Is it mediation on religion?  On politics?  Is it Freudian?  Jungian?  Christian?  Existential?  Ethical?  Are they gay men, or is this a comment on deeply homo-social friendships?  Or is it simply surrealism run amuck?

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989) was not going to be any help in pointing out the meaning.  He famously told Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) that if I had known more I would have put it in the text, and that was true also of the other characters.  He remained remarkably closed-mouthed about what it all meant until the very end.  Indeed, in his introduction to the play, Beckett writes:  I don't know who Godot is. I don't even know (above all don't know) if he exists. And I don't know if they believe in him or not – those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It's not much, but it's enough for me, by a wide margin. I'll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible ... Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other

We here at The Jade Sphinx protest that I cannot see the point of it is not exactly an artistic credo of any great worth.  Indeed, it abdicates the artist’s foremost responsibility – to represent life and give it meaning.  But, if we want to see two great actors in a once-in-a-lifetime chance, we take it as it comes, to quote Pinter.

One other constant in most productions is that both Vladimir and Estragon wear bowler hats, and I cannot help but thinking while watching Stewart and McKellen last night that I was watching some weird synthesis of Laurel and Hardy and the worst excesses of Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953).  There is an underlying sweetness and innocence in both Vladimir and Estragon that is extremely reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy, and if ‘the boys’ were somehow cast in Strange Interlude, the result would be Godot.  It is also a sweetness that is sadly lacking in the mostly mean and rather vicious No Man’s Land.  Both McKellen and Stewart have a remarkable warmth about them that infuses Godot with a humanism that is absent in the text.  I wish they had a better vehicle to show their innermost hearts.  The tenderness they shower on one another, the simple acts of affection, the acceptance of human frailties: these, more than anything else in the play, leave a profound impression.

As with No Man’s Land, McKellen somehow scores the showier part, here playing Estragon.  (Bert Lahr in the original Broadway production – and if the contrast between McKellen and Lahr does not illustrate how malleable these characters are, nothing does.)  McKellen is a marvel: he is completely submerged in the character and layers of old man makeup.  His performance is wonderfully physical, and his mutterings and asides are great comic business.  It is also a fearlessly naked performance: McKellen is unafraid of being frail, dirty and vague.  It is a masterful bit of underplaying.

Stewart, as Vladimir, has the lion’s share of the dialog and he is wonderful.  He manages to achieve a lilt to his usual stentorian voice – and if I’m not mistaken, he consciously or subconsciously is modeling much of his performance on Stan Laurel (1890-1965).  This makes a great deal of sense, and seldom has Stewart played to sweeter effect.  It is Vladimir who is moved throughout the play by compassion, empathy or outrage; he is also ribaldly funny.  I never expected to see Stewart sing or dance – both of which he does here – nor have I ever expected to see him master low comedy slapstick.  It seems this protean actor’s range is limitless, his energy galvanic and his touch both deft and profound.

The sour note of the evening was Shuler Hensley (born 1967) as the barbarous Pozzo.  Hensley’s playing was broad enough to embarrass a church-basement performance of the play.  Fortunately, Billy Crudup (born 1965) as the ironically named Lucky, shines once again.  Both Pozzo and Lucky were components Beckett threw in to provide some kind of action in the play; however, the action is so brutal and callus as to throw off the emotional tenor of the play … whatever that is.

I think a more interesting approach to both plays would have been for these two great actors to switch roles on alternate performances.  How wonderful it would’ve been to see each man’s interpretation of each role – and where they differed.  Gielgud and Oliver did it in the 1930s, switching Mercutio and Romeo, so it’s not impossible – perhaps someday.

For readers able to see only one of the plays, certainly Godot is the one to catch.  It has the greater warmth, is more open to interpretation, and both actors are more evenly matched.  More importantly, they actually play off one another, whereas in No Man’s Land, they might as well have been in separate rooms (or plays). 

Godot also left me strangely … moved.  As a play, I cannot respect it, nor can I defend it.  I certainly can’t explain it.  But these two sad ragamuffins caring for one another in an indifferent universe cannot help but deliver a level of pathos.

Returning again to Laurel and Hardy, a critic once wrote that the world wasn’t their oyster, but that they were the pearl inside of it.  So, too, with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in Waiting for Godot.


Friday, December 6, 2013

The Moqattam Craft Sale at Calvary-St. George To Help Innocents Caught in the Egyptian Revolution


Every year at Christmastime, we reflect on those who are the most needy and how best to help them.  Part of the spirit of the holiday is not just giving gifts to friends and family, but providing for those in distant lands who perhaps need our help the most.

It is difficult for many of us here in the United States to realize the poverty can sometimes be the product of social upheaval, political unrest, or government mismanagement.  A look at the international news demonstrates that much of the world is in a state of flux, and that the most vulnerable – women, children, the poor or the uneducated – are usually the first victims.

I recently received word from Nimet Habachy, a host on WQXR, New York’s premier classical music radio station, of conditions in Egypt.  The revolution there continues to wreak havoc in the lives of the poorest of the poor – especially in the community in the Moqattam hills near Cairo’s Citadel.  This community produces many of the carpets, quilts, bags, rugs and paper goods that are purchased by us here in the West.  Ongoing violence, demonstrations and curfews have restricted normal activity, and Cairenes are not venturing out to purchase the cottage-industry goods produced by the Zabbaleen people, and their survival has become dependent on the sales of their goods in the US.

For generations, the Zabbaleen supported themselves by collecting trash door-to-door from the residents of Cairo for nearly no charge. Notably, the Zabbaleen recycle up to 80 percent of the waste that they collect, whereas most Western garbage collecting companies can only recycle 20 to 25 percent of the waste that they collect.  Living conditions for the Zabbaleen are very poor, as they live amid the trash they sort in their village, and with the pigs to which they feed their organic waste.

As trade for these simple people withers away, the Zabbaleen will suffer – the efforts to advance hygiene and literacy in the community will languish and the two schools which have been established will disappear.

Education has been crucial to the advance of the Zabbaleen women and children – one school teaches literacy and provides job-skills training, and the other cares for the workers’ children, leaving them free to produce to the goods that so many New Yorkers have come to appreciate.

To help bring relief to the Zabbaleen people, Calvary-St. George’s Church will hold its annual sale of Zabbaleen crafts.  The Zabbaleen produce beautiful materials, following a deeply-entrenched tradition of artisans and craftsmen.  The sale runs from Wednesday, December 11 through Friday, December 13, from Noon till 8:00 PM, and Saturday, December 14, from 11:00 AM till 6:00 PM. 

“It is remarkable in this season of giving in a glittering New York City to be able to give to the poorest of the poor by buying the cottage industry products of a trash-collecting community in far away Cairo Egypt,” Habachy told your correspondent.


Calvary-St. George’s Church is located at 61 Gramercy Park North, at 21st Street between Park and Lexington Avenues.  I will be there – and hope you will, too.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in No Man’s Land, by Harold Pinter



Well … theater buffs have a stellar season this year.  Not only do we have three major Shakespearean revivals, but two of the finest actors of their generation have come to town for a repertory of two plays.  Any occasion when Patrick Stewart (born 1940) or Ian McKellen (born 1939) appear is one for celebration – when they are appearing together, it is an occasion for unbridled delight.

Sadly, Stewart and McKellen have chosen to come to Broadway not in Shakespeare, but in two plays by Harold Pinter (1930-2008) and Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). 

Though much-beloved by Modernists and other intellectual lightweights, Pinter’s plays most often leave audiences scratching their heads and thinking… what the heck was that about?  That reaction is mollified – to a great degree – by the delight of watching these two seasoned scene-stealers onstage together.

Pinter’s No Man’s Land premiered originally in London in 1975, with John Gielgud (1904-2000) as Spooner and Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) as Hirst.  This production transferred to Broadway for a 1976-77 run, and has entered into Broadway history.  (The original production with Richardson and Gielgud was filmed for the National Theatre Archive, and can be seen in three parts on YouTube starting at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wd6iKPkXMqY).  Your correspondent saw an absolutely smashing production of the play in 1994 at the Roundabout Theatre Company with Christopher Plummer (born 1929) as Spooner and Jason Robards (1922-2000) as Hirst – and though the play was still incomprehensible to me, it was great larks. 

The plot, to call it such, is that Hirst – an alcoholic man of letters living in a posh abode somewhere near Hampstead – picks up Spooner, a seedy poet, taking him home for a drink.  Spooner stays on overnight as an unwilling guest, also interacting with Hirst’s menacing manservants, Foster and Briggs.  What is going on – and who really knows who and to what extent these are old friends, or strangers or potential lovers or … well, anything, are left ambiguous and up to the viewer.  (Kenneth Tynan was greatly disturbed by Pinter’s “gratuitous obscurity,” and to that we add, “Amen, Brother.”)  It is a play that has no business working, but it with the right actors, it always “plays.”

At first, I was a little trepidatious about the casting.  Spooner (originally Gielgud, later Plummer and here McKellen) does the vast majority of the talking, while Hirst (Richardson, then Robards and now Stewart) responds obliquely.  Though McKellen has a fine voice and a mighty persona, he is always more a character than an actor, and I had hoped that Stewart – the more accomplished and compelling of the two – would take center stage.  Moreover, Spooner is such a showy role that Hirst always seems gets lost in the proceedings – my memory of Robards (a great actor), for example, is practically nil.

However, I’m delighted to report that the casting was correct.  It would take an actor of mighty aspect and peerless technique to make Hirst the equal of Spooner, and Stewart carries off this impossible task with ease.  While McKellen makes catnip out of his outlandish verbal wordplay, Stewart stops the show with pithy, monosyllabic answers.  They are perfectly and evenly matched.

McKellen here resists his normal temptation to overact, and he is simply the finest Spooner I’ve ever seen.  He is complete control of his voice and manner, and he manages to command attention even when sitting at ease.  In his seedy suit, greasy hair pulled back with a rubber band, two-day stubble and dirty tennis shoes, he is the failed literary man to a T.  I have seldom seen him so …. human.

Stewart is fit and stunning is a gray toupee and tweeds, later in a smart blue suit.  Oddly enough, the addition of hair makes this seemingly ageless actor look older, which works for the overall conception of the part.  Stewart has several fine monologs, but the show really takes off in the second act when Stewart and McKellen reminisce (if reminisce they do – it’s possible they don’t really know one another) about shared wives and girlfriends.  It’s the kind of badinage that the audience craves from them, and is in such short supply in this play.

Special mention must be made of Billy Crudup (born 1965), who plays the vile Foster.  It is a nothing part, and I’ve never seen anyone do anything with it; however, Crudup, in his two monologs, nearly steals attention away from his more distinguished co-stars completely.  We need him on Broadway more than ever.

No Man’s Land is directed and staged with a sure hand by Sean Mathias (1956) and the set is wonderfully evocative.  The cast broke character at curtain to entreat the audience to support Broadway Cares, a worthy organization.

Readers of this blog know that your correspondent is no great fan of Modernism, and that my aesthetic is largely pre-Industrial Revolution.  As such, I admit to a possible antipathy to works such as this.  That said, however, No Man’s Land is a play so slight as to be nearly transparent.  It was always a vehicle for two great actors and this product provides that pleasure in spades.   One only wishes the vehicle equaled their talents.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dombey and Sons, by Charles Dickens

Illustration By Phiz


This triple decker novel isn’t a commitment, it’s an immersion.  And as such, you could not spend your time better than living for some 800 pages in the world of Dombey and Son (1848).

This was Charles Dickens’ seventh novel.  It was illustrated by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne, 1815-1882), and was the first with his new publishers, Bradbury and Evans.  At first, Dickens was anxious about the abilities of his new publishers to effectively sell his novel; he shouldn’t have been.  Dombey and Son was first released in serial format, and sold 40,000 copies a month, while Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray (1811-1863) released at the same time, sold only 5,000 a month.  Literary history has been kinder to Vanity Fair than Dombey, but that is a shame as Dombey is the exponentially better novel.

Up until Dombey, Dickens’ novels were largely picaresque affairs.  His books The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby or his earlier The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, for example, were largely interconnected episodes, strung together by the thread of a central character.  With Dombey Dickens wrote his first well-made novel, with characters introduced in the earliest chapters that move the action throughout in a clear, linear narrative. 

The story is a simple one: Mr. Paul Dombey heads the firm Dombey and Son.  His wife dies after giving birth to his son and heir, Paul, Jr.  Dombey also has a daughter, Florence, to whom he pays no attention whatsoever.  The children are sent away to school, where young Master Paul grows more and more attached to his sister.  When young Paul dies, Mr. Dombey retreats into his grief, having no room whatsoever in his heart for young Florence.

In time, Dombey marries again, to a proud young woman named Edith Granger.  She is, essentially, sold into marriage by her grasping, social climbing mother.  The marriage is a disaster.  Edith – haughty and proud as Dombey himself – openly despises her new husband, and he does everything he can to break her will.  Caught in the middle is young Florence, whom Edith grows to love.  Dombey uses Florence as a tool with which to beat Edith down – threatening the welfare of his own daughter if his wife shows her affection.

At length, Edith runs away with Dombey’s business manager, the vile Mr. Carker.  But she does this only to hurt Dombey and destroy Carker – and as a gambit, it works.  But the cost is high.

At the same time, Dombey throws Florence out of her own home.  With no place to go, she returns to her friend Capt. Cuttle, who is waiting for word of his shipwrecked nephew, Walter Gay, and his friend, Sol Gills.

The conclusion of the novel is a surprise on many levels, and an enthralling read.

Dombey and Son is also, in many ways, Dickens’ most transgressive novel.  He really only has two effective female protagonists in his oeuvre, Esther Summerson in Bleak House, and Florence, here in Dombey and Son, and I’m not sure that Florence is not the most compelling.  A lonely and neglected child, she seeks affection in the most unlikely places, and her growth into womanhood is drawn effectively.  It is a psychologically sound portrait.

But even better still is Edith Granger, Dickens’ masterstroke in the novel.  She is in incredibly powerful woman, who does not steer from her convictions (or hatreds) even when doing so would certainly make her situation easier.  Edith takes life on her terms, or not at all.  Wonderfully realized is her destruction of Carker, the novel’s villain, though it effectively ruins her life and her reputation.

Even more interesting is Dickens’ use of humor and grotesque characters.  Dickens clearly did not believe that life was either a tragedy or a comedy, and he populates his novels (even the bleaker ones) with vivid comedic characters.  There are many in this novel, including Edith’s mother, “Cleopatra” Skewton, a middle-aged woman who dresses like a young girl, Major Bagstock (a Col. Blimp character), and his two most memorable, Capt. Cuttle and Mr. Toots.

To call Capt. Cuttle a cartoon is, perhaps, to do a disservice to cartoons – the good Capt. would give Popeye the Sailor a run for his money in the absence-of-reality department.  However, Dickens, in his genius, understood that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and it often his most comedic characters who are the most heroic.  Cuttle is the heart and soul of the novel, he gives it warmth, zest and vitality.  In addition, it is he who saves the day on countless occasions – not bad for a hook-handed old salt who speaks only in nautical phrases.

Mr. Toots, a boyhood friend of young Paul, is a comic figure as well – a halfwit who cannot sit still.  But it is Toots, too, who comes to the rescue quite often.  He loses Florence to the blandly heroic Walter (who barely makes an impression), and one cannot help but wonder if she made the right choice.  Toots might be a halfwit, but he kept the right half.

To leave a novel like Dombey after pouring through its pages is something of a letdown.  Dickens’ world is so densely imagined, his people so vivid and lifelike, his sense of drama so satisfying, that putting down Dombey and Son is rather like saying goodbye to a friend.  To read a book like Dombey and Son is to realize the current poverty of creation in contemporary novelists – the lack of expansive spirit, of warm humanism, of complex plotting, of delight in creation.  Reading Dickens provides warmth and succor, cheer and insight.  How many contemporary novelists can make that claim?

This year many of us will return to A Christmas Carol, perhaps the central text of our holiday celebration.  But there is much more to Dickens than Scrooge and “bah, humbug!” and adventurous readers would be amply rewarded by visiting the world of Dombey and Son.



Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Sandman and the War of Dreams, by William Joyce


Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know that we take our Christmas here very, very seriously, so it is with great delight that we announce that prolific author, illustrator, animator and filmmaker William Jocye (born 1957) has released the next prose novel in his ongoing Guardians of Childhood series, Sandman and the War of Dreams.  It is, in a word, marvelous.

For those of you who came in late: Joyce has undertaken to create a series of books – both picture books and prose novels – that chronicle the origins of the great heroes of childhood, including Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Man in the Moon, and the Sandman.  In doing this, he does not fall into the trap of presenting the mixture as before, but, rather, creates a whole new persona and background for each classic figure, making it wholly his own.  (Did you know that the Easter Bunny is the last of a race of brilliant warrior rabbits?  Or that Santa Claus was raised by Cossack brigands?  If not, read on….)

Brazenly, Joyce ends his novels with edge-of-your-seat cliffhangers.  In the last book, Toothiana Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, the heroine, Katherine, was kidnapped by Pitch (the Bogeyman) and his daughter, the beautiful and dangerous Mother Nature.  Our heroes return to the magical land of Santoff Clausen to regroup, convinced that Katherine may be lost to them forever.  However, just when things look their darkest, out of the night (literally) comes the newest Guardian to join their ranks, the Sandman.

Or, to be more precise, Sanderson Mansnoozie.  Awakening from a sleep of eons, Mansnoozie is one of the last of a great race of star-faring Star Captains.  Or, as Mansnoozie explains, As a star pilot, I belonged to the League of Star Captains, a cheerful brotherhood devoted to the granting of wishes.  We each had a wandering star that we commanded.  In the tip of our star was our cabin, a bright compact place, much like an opulent bunk bed.  We journeyed wherever we pleased, passing planets at random and listening to the wishes that were made to us as we passed.  If a wish was worthy, we were honor-bound to answer it.  We would send a dream to whomever had made the wish.  The dream would go to that person as they slept, and within this dream, there would be a story…

The book combines Joyce’s taste for swashbuckling adventure with his usual goofy humor – almost as if Soupy Sales were writing Robin Hood.  Chapter titles include The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of, The Sandman Cometh and, my favorite, Do Be Afraid of the Dark.  And while the story further complicates and expands the overarching story, Joyce never loses sight of what makes his characters tick.

Sandman is part of an ongoing effort by Joyce to make a children’s cosmology, and has, within the pages of these books, created a fully-realized fantasy world.  It has pep and zest and a zany sense of humor – and is more reminiscent of L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories than any other contemporary series that I know. 

Sandman is the darkest book in the series, thus far.  In it, we see the horrific events that turned one of the great leaders of the lost Golden Age into Pitch, and how violence and hatred can warp even the most noble souls.  The book also resonates most deeply on the sense of a passed Golden Age, an Age of Wonders.  Children’s books are often the inkblot test upon which we see a multitude of meanings, and I cannot help but think that Joyce – consciously or not – is mourning for the marvels of the 20th Century, the Great American Century, now passed forever.

The book is wonderfully designed.  Joyce provides a series of charcoal and pencil drawings (so different from his lush, colorful, classic Americana paintings), and the middle third of the book (a flashback) is on black paper printed in white type.  The images here have a certain magical quality that seems far removed from most fantastic fiction for children; they are more primal and have a sense of … urgency that is usually missing from Joyce’s work.  Sandman is not a book to be forgotten quickly.

It is perhaps not surprising that the strongest entries in the series have all been about the “second tier” figures of the kiddie pantheon: to most children, the Tooth Fairy or the Sandman or the Man in the Moon are little more than names, but free from other conceptions of the characters, Joyce makes them startlingly original and alive. 

In the previous novel, he created a Tooth Fairy that was a figure of otherworldly delicacy and beauty.  With the Sandman, he creates a figure of surpassing strangeness.  Mute (he communicates through dreams and symbols), Sandman is of benign and beatific aspect.  But he also strong, resolute and brave – equal parts Harpo Marx and John Wayne.  As such, he is a wonderful creation and a worthy addition to the Joyce canon of children heroes.



Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving At The Jade Sphinx


Well, make no mistake about it – 2013 was a difficult year for us here at The Jade Sphinx.  A cluster of calamities sapped our attention, our energy and our peace of mind.  And yet …

Well, if you remember last year’s message, expect the mixture as before.  We here are happy to be alive, delighted in the time spent with those we love, and constantly amazed at the ways in which our lives play out.  I am convinced that those who are negative, or ironic, or simply jaded (a repellant attitude, if ever there was one), are missing a vital fact of life – that while it’s often harrowing, it’s always surprising and definitely worth living.

Though uniquely American, Thanksgiving has always been our holiday least associated with ideology or creed.  It is simply a day set aside to be thankful for the many good things in our lives.  And the celebratory meal represents the bounty that is our lives – the many courses, tastes and phases of a unique and sensual experience.  Though nonreligious, Thanksgiving is sacramental, best shared with people we love.

Thanksgiving has also always been the gateway to the holiday season, and I look forward to this year’s revelries with particular relish.  Christmastime is the best moment to stop and contemplate the quiet miracle of our lives, and that seems more imperative to us this year than ever.  Though we are assaulted daily by cultural and political noise, we continue to find grace notes and things of great beauty that make life meaningful.  I am frankly amazed at some of the magnificent novels I’ve read this year, the pictures that I’ve seen, the music that I’ve heard and the simple human kindnesses I’ve witnessed.  The fine arts provide succor and inspiration, validation and exploration, relief and insight, and the consolations of the arts have been something quite wonderful this year.  But all of this bounty means nothing without human connection.  The arts may enhance and help define these connections, but they can never supplant them.

Happy Thanksgiving – and onward to a warm, rewarding and nurturing holiday season.