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A Delightfully Cynical Christmas

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It’s little wonder that Thanksgiving and Christmas are the number one and two movie-going days of the year. The reason for this burst of cinematic fervor is often ascribed to family tradition. If custom is really the reason—which I doubt—the box office boost is given impetus as much by esprit du corps as it is by the often desperate need of finding a neutral site where siblings and parents will be on decent behavior.

Enclosed in the big dark, topping off the afternoon’s feast with a final infusion of sugar, liquid butter, and salt, family members almost unfailingly remain on good behavior, seemingly cheery and ready to extend goodwill to their fellow humans beings—even wife, husband, and kid brother. Compared to the bad tempers I’ve seen on display just this season at the parking lot outside of Target or the gluten-free aisle at the local supermarket, all is pure Christian harmony in the movie houses of this land on Christmas Day.

Perhaps it is simply the excitement of going to a show and the distractions of the entertainment itself that keep people from flipping out. (The cinema shootings of Aurora, Colorado in 2012 and Lafayette, Louisiana in 2015 were perpetrated by insane gunmen cut-off from their families. The attacks showed how tenuous even this vestige of the polis actually is.)

That the multiplex functions as a civilizing influence should not elicit jeremiads about the inexorable decline of civic spaces—at least it won’t from me, at least not just now. Yes, these places are neon hells, thick with toxic chemicals and bad movies. But at least human beings are amongst others of their species exchanging looks and pleasantries before disappearing into their flickering caves.

Nowadays all those violent adventure flicks and silly romcoms served up by Hollywood and charged with keeping the lid on family fights are just as likely to be consumed personally as communally. Indeed, they’re maybe more likely to be downloaded than experienced with others. Plug into your private cinema, its screen barely bigger than the palm, and familial vexations disappear instantly. By such simple means are diffused domestic hostilities flaring up over the demilitarized zone of the banquet table as Aunt Lisa fires cruise missiles of praise for her man Trump that skim over the carcass of the turkey, though not over Turkey itself, even if she’d like to send them in that direction, too. Others prefer boots on the ground, like Lisa’s husband Hank, who sends a steel-toed blow to her ample shin.

Other insurgents launch their carefully planned operations. Little Larry (now twenty-eight-years old, and weighing in at 240 pounds before he laid waste to the present culinary offerings) peppers his oppressors with complaints about how he always gets shrift from the Christmas haul—and from life, too. Anarchic cousin Lil, even more disaffected when she’s drunk (which she emphatically is now) lurches towards the dusty piano and starts into her favorite dystopian carol, Bob Dorough’s Blue Xmas: “It’s a time when the rich, give a dime to the needy.” Then dad’s prize Weimaraner shits on his father-in-law’s brand new Christmas slippers …

It’s time for a movie.

As a service to CounterPunch readers hoping to calm holiday tempers, I offer a recommendation of a film that will distract and delight. On the Spanish Main of the present-day digital seas, this movie can be gotten from the coasts of evil amazon or otherwise plundered from enemy galleons for home consumption.

This excellent movie tip came to me from Clancy Sigal, who knows a thing or two about writing, watching, and appreciating movies. After a recent column of mine about piano music on film Clancy wrote me this:

“I grew up with Warner Brothers ‘classical music’ movies where only the star’s face is shown but the fiddle hands belong to Heifitz or Menuhin.  You’ve no idea what you’re missing in Humoresque.  He (poor slum boy violin prodigy): ‘What sort of music to you like?’  She (rich arts patron Joan Crawford): ‘Oh, some symphonies, all concertos.’ Surely one of the greats.”

Even if Clancy took some script-writing license with the remembered dialogue (after all, the film came out in 1946), his précis of the film and its characters is spot on. In fact, the hands belong to another of the great violinist of the twentieth century, Isaac Stern, who plays on the soundtrack. But we also see plenty of Garfield’s hands in action at some Strad—perhaps Sterns. Garfield is said to have “learned to play the violin” for the movie. Whatever this might mean, his hands give the best musical performance of any non-musician’s in Hollywood history—a signal achievement since he takes on the wildest violin warhorses there are. For example, Sarasate’s Zigeunerweise is tossed off at the Park Avenue party where Garfield gets the attention of his soon-to-be patroness and lover, played by Joan Crawford. Rich, gorgeous, alcoholic, and shortsighted, she puts on her glasses when he starts playing. In this and other scenes he’s accompanied by Oscar Levant, himself the greatest onscreen pianist in the history of film. Levant was a bitingly sardonic actor and genre-crossing musician of outsized technique and singularly laconic charisma.

They all smoke a lot, as can be seen from the cover of the 1997 Nonesuch album that reheats the movie’s music with Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg taking over Stern’s role. The photo is a restaging of Levant’s bedside table and says everything about the movie’s mise-en-scène. This film is black and white and nicotine brown.

That the would-be prodigy version of Garfield’s character is played by twelve-year-old Robert Blake—later the tough guy t.v detective Baretta, who more than fifty years after his appearance in Humoresque would be acquitted for murder of his second wife but found liable for the crime in the ensuing civil case—adds seamy historical resonance to the on-screen action.

Franz Waxman prepared the soundtrack and this Hollywood titan’s montage medley depicting the challenges of mastering the violin in the urban jungle counts as one of the most virtuosic stretches of cinema music ever done: it’s a sublime mash-up that careens from the Brahms’ violin concerto in Garfield’s room, then flies out into the frantic city before boomeranging back to the apartment for a blast of the Mendelssohn concerto now with Levant at the piano spurring on the leading man.

Its title certainly one of the most ironic ever hung on a movie, Humoresque is a film thick with smoke and music, from solo Bach to a blistering Flight of the Bumble Bee, and culminating with a Tristan and Isolde Fantasy lashed by gin, surf, and seething applause. This Hollywood masterpiece is as full of cynicism as it is of song: perfect for the holidays.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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