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Archive for December, 2009

I know it’s fashionable for some people to dismiss Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life as mere Capra-corn, shamelessly manipulating the audience for sentimentality’s sake. It’s possible that some of these people have seen this Christmas favorite too many times. It’s also possible that they have never really seen it.

Regardless, I don’t worry much about the “message” of the film, except indirectly. I’m never persuaded that “this film shows that one person can make a difference.” Of course it does; that’s the way the screenwriters wrote it, for Pete’s sake. What does interest me is how the film draws us in to the characters and story. The writers and Capra, certainly; but special attention should go Joseph Walker’s cinematography and, above all else, the astounding acting of Jimmy Stewart.

Yes, he’s way too old for the part, at least the early scenes; but this is a fable, after all. What shines from the screen is the emotional honesty and conviction that Stewart brings to every scene. It’s impossible for me to imagine any other actor, of any time, pulling this off. (Well, maybe Tom Hanks, Stewart’s spiritual descendant).

I watched it again this Christmas season. I always look forward to my favorite scenes, and every now and again one will surprise me. I find myself drawn to earlier scenes rather than the attempted suicide/Clarence the angel scenes that are so much a part of the “story.”

7) Honorable mentions. IAWL is so full of the exuberance of life lived that it just bursts from the screen at odd moments. Two small things stand out for me: the crow that inhabits the Building and Loan office (why? on the other hand, why not?); and the unexpected laugh when rainwater pours out of George’s hat as he greets Bert at the door of his “bridal suite.” This is not a screwball comedy, but surely Capra’s background in that 30’s genre informs moments like this. And kudos, naturally, to Sesame Street for adopting the names Bert and Ernie.
[Update: The Wikipedia article on the movie notes that Jimmy the Raven was in all Capra’s films beginning with You Can’t Take it With You; and says that the Sesame Street connection was purely coincidental. I believe the former, but not the latter.]

6) George and Mr. Gower. This scene really hit me when I watched it recently. The young George prevents drunken Mr. Gower from accidentally poisoning one of his pharmacy’s clients. George’s pleas for  the old man not to hit his bad ear, combined with Gower’s remorse once he realizes what he almost did, are unexpectedly powerful.

5) High school dance: the Charleston. Just for the sheer exuberant delight of it. Watch George’s face as he does the old hands-crossing maneuver. Also note the framing of the shot where Mary sees George looking at her across a crowded room. There are dozens of people in the shot, but you can’t take your eyes off George.

4) High school dance: splash! OK, having George and Mary fall into the swimming pool is a plot point. But why have other students (and chaperones) jump in? Again — why not?

3) George confronts Potter. This is the ultimate Stewart-as-courageous-hero moment. Yes, there’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but this is the best of all. George is in mourning for his father, but provoked by Potter’s attempt to sink the Building and Loan, he rises to heights of eloquence and power when confronting the miserable, greedy wretch of a man Potter has become. If there’s a Capra political message in this film, it’s that ordinary people need to be given a chance to become productive members of society. I grew up in Gaffney, SC, a small textile town which is still suffering pathologies from the creation of Potter-like mill villages, so this speaks to me. Stewart cannot possibly be more heart-felt and convincing.

2) George and Mary on the phone. This had to have been a Capra favorite. George is trying mightily to resist Mary’s charms (and she knows it). But his stubbornness melts before their mere proximity as they listen to the speaker tube of the old-time phone (great use of a prop, by the way). The way George moves (is pulled) closer to her millimeter by millimeter is incredibly . . . well, stirring, in its chaste way.

1) George at the train station. My favorite of all. Stewart’s acting skill and the cinematography of the tracking shot that follows him down the platform are unsurpassed. George thinks that the arrival of his brother means he will at last be able to give up the Building and Loan. But after meeting Harry’s new bride he realizes that won’t happen. Stewart’s face is the perfect canvas for Capra to paint the conflicting emotions of happiness for his brother and despair for himself as full realization dawns.

If there were no other scene in the movie, this would be enough to know that there’s high artistry here. But It’s a Wonderful Life has so many of these that it’s the best possible Christmas film.

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Adapted from our annual Christmas letter:

Last night we celebrated our daughter Mary’s birthday. It was a surprise party organized by some of her friends. Unfortunately, a birthday near Christmas sometimes can get lost in the shuffle — but not this one. A good way to approach the end of the year.

Okay, so it wasn’t the best year we’ve seen. The bad news is that a tree fell on our house in April. Oh, wait, that was the good news.

Actually, “a tree fell on our house” is a pretty good metaphor for the year. Miami University decided to end local operation of WMUB, and the last day for the staff was June 30th. Cleve will teach a couple of courses at Miami-Hamilton starting in January, and has also been working on some research and writing projects (yes, Virginia, there really is a ‘theCallisongroup.com’). Despite this teensy setback, Jenny and Cleve made it to their annual outing with friends in Pisgah National Forest.

Jenny has had an interesting year. Miami’s Farmer School of Business moved into its new headquarters, a LEED-certified building that’s really spectacular. There’s been much to do all year, especially this fall. She’s active in the Wyoming JWC (“Any club that invites me and has ‘Junior’ in the title,” she notes, “is a good club.”) She’s also continuing to write for the Cincinnati Enquirer, concentrating mostly on stories about home remodelings and makeovers. We don’t recommend having a tree fall on your house to jump-start this process.

It’s been a year of transition for Mary. After graduating from Miami last December, she worked here in Cincinnati in a variety of jobs. She worked at a bar/restaurant at the top of Mt. Adams (great city views), worked for the Census in Ohio and West Virginia, and for an upscale lifestyle store. But the big news is that she’ll start graduate school in business in Texas beginning in January, right after her birthday.

John is a ‘first-year senior’ at the University of South Carolina. He’ll graduate next December, thus giving Steve Spurrier one more year to get the football team up to speed; in the meantime, he’s busy with his singing. He had his Junior Recital in February and was in Our Town (the Ned Rorem opera) in the spring. He had the lead in the East Side Players’ summer production of Bye Bye Birdie. And this fall he had the male lead in the USC production of The Light in the Piazza.

In times like these, the support of family and friends is even more precious. May your carbon footprint be reduced in 2010!

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I’ve been neglecting this blog lately to work on a couple of projects. One involved a comparison of different communication methods over the years. In researching it, I learned that when the IBM PC 5150 (the first personal computer) came out, it cost $1,565 and had a whopping 40 kilobytes of RAM. That works out to $39,125 per megabyte, or $88,176 in 2007 dollars. (I used 2007 inflation figures because that was the last year used by the on-line calculator I found).

The first Macintosh, the 128K, come out in 1984. It cost more, $2,495, but the cost per megabyte was a comparative bargain — just $19,392 ($38,429 in 2007 dollars).

How about now? I assembled a hypothetical generic Dual Core Intel machine with the usual features from a 2007 price list. At $421 for the computer, including a huge hard drive and DVD burner, it included 2 gigabytes of memory. That works out to just over 42 cents per megabyte — $0.42065, to be precise.

Here’s a chart showing the trend (apologies to J-Walk):

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First snowfall

Doesn’t look as if it will amount to much.

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Swagger is for wanna-bes

Sports Cliches I’m Really, Really Tired of Hearing:

1) “In Space” — re football, seems to mean just “past the line of scrimmage with nobody immediately around.” OK, I get it. Enough, already.

2) “Swagger” — Body language and attitude that is supposed to show confidence, an upbeat attitude and an “I’m better than you are” mindset. Spoken of by TV announcers, coaches and athletes as if it’s a good thing. In reality, great athletes have an understated grace that is the diametric opposite of swagger.

The Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty had a great column recently about the perils of NFL football. Half of the players surveyed by Eric M. Carter for his book Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune, And Deviance Among Professional Football Players reported deep depression even at the height of their careers. Who would have thought that fabulous wealth, community adulation, pursuit of mindless pleasure, lack of supervision and grounding would lead to that?

By the way, the link above is to the book’s Amazon site. Warning: Googling “boys gone wild” most definitely gives a whole ‘nother type of links.

Oh, and . . . I am a sports fan, of sorts (observer-style). I’ll watch just about any college football. And Duke basketball. But I’m not fair-weather about it: I also steel myself to watch the Bengals and the Reds. Hey, the Bengals are 8-2 3, so maybe it’s working!

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