It's the season of colds, stampedes at the mall, Aunt Medusa's meltdown, hungover reindeer, missed planes and (how could we forget?)...the fiscal cliff. But be of good cheer! The spirit of Santa and art still exists. Heffalumps is here with a few essential holidaze survival tips.
Walk, run, skip, jump, drive, fly, skateboard to see Steven Spielberg's splendid new movie "Lincoln." In our fragmented culture, where we each belong to our own private, exclusive tribe or niche, there is little common ground. When I mention the critically acclaimed TV show "Breaking Bad" or even the entertaining late night show "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" to my family in southern, rural New Jersey, they look at me as if I'd mentioned that I'd just had cocktails with a few engaging Martian poets.
"Lincoln," featuring an Oscar worthy performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (as Lincoln), stellar acting by Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones and many others as well as a terrific screenplay by Tony Kushner, is that rare work of art that nearly everyone aged 10 to 80 (other than glandular 14-year-old boys or mean girls), will enjoy. It has relationship drama, politics and battle scenes. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's engrossing book "A Team of Rivals," "Lincoln" takes place during the last few months of Lincoln's life. Who could kvetch about his or her problems while watching this riveting story of Lincoln's struggle to end slavery, bring the Civil War to a close and handle his and his wife's grief over their young son William who died?
Despite the grave nexus of the Civil War, slavery and grief which engulfs the United State's 16th president, the movie isn't a stiff historical movie. Honest Abe isn't a clean-cut, saint. His friends and associates groan when Lincoln says that he's about to tell another of his stories. And his tales often aren't of a saintly nature. Some, especially one involving an outhouse and a picture of George Washington, would fit into the latest Judd Apatow flick.
People of all stripes will be chattering about "Lincoln" in the same way that everyone from suburban housewives to businessmen to farmers talked about "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson." When I saw the film at a noon show, it was nearly sold out. Grandparents, 20-somethings and boomers were in the rapt audience. A couple with their ten year-old daughter sat next to me. "It's Harry Potter for grown-ups," the young girl observed to me.
Joan Didion famously said that we tell ourselves stories so that we can get up in the morning. This is the season of stories – from the one about the Hanukah lights to the tale about no room at the inn. Believers or non-believers, many of us celebrate these stories – to light up our darkened winter spirits. As artists such stories nurture our art even when we paint pictures or write poems featuring no lights or overbooked inns.
Last month, Isaiah Sheffer, who founded Symphony Space in New York City and served as its artistic director for 32 years, died. This is a sad loss not only for everyone who knew, loved and worked with Sheffer, but for story-lovers everywhere. Under Sheffer's nurturing, Symphony Space created its program of Selected Shorts (www.selectedshorts.org), in which actors from Mary Kay Place to James Naughton have read short stories by authors from John Cheever to Kevin Barry. Nothing is worse than sitting through a bad poetry or fiction reading. Being sprayed with honey and thrown to the bottom of an anthill is preferable to me than hearing readers reduce great writing to mangled monotones. Hearing talented actors read fiction or poetry is an airlift (more like an earlift) to heaven. I can't think of anything more restorative than listening to Selected Shorts in person, on the radio or on podcast, or of a better holiday gift than Selected Shorts CDs or digital downloads.
Go to poetry readings. Read poems that strike your fancy. Poetry won't fix your plumbing, tone your abbs, or bake your fave Yuletide confection. But if it's good, it will console, amuse, comfort, provoke and inspire you – to make love, peace or art. Give poetry collections to not only the starving bards but to the lesser mortals in your midst. Some great poetry volumes that I've been recently reading are: "Speed Enforced by Aircraft" by Richard Peabody, "The Grace to Leave" by Lola Haskins and "Stag's Leap" by Sharon Olds.
Other Silver Screen picks
Nothing offers more of an escape from holiday madness than going to the movies. Hollywood brings out its best Oscar-worthy and escapist fare. Along with "Lincoln," check out "The Sessions," the story of the late poet Mark O'Brien's quest for intimacy and love. Don't forget to take in "Anna Karenina," the latest version of Tolstoy's epic, but dishy novel. (Where else do you get a soap opera of marriage, adultery and, spoiler alert, a woman throwing herself under a train in the name of love–that's, wait for it, great, classic, lit?) Your holiday season won't be complete if you miss "Hitchcock" – with Anthony Hopkins as the great master as he directed "Psycho." And be sure not to miss "Skyfall" – the latest Bond – or Bill Murray as FDR in "Hyde Park on Hudson."
If all of the above fails to get your through the holiday maze, watch the Marx Brothers on DVD. It's hard to despair when Groucho cavorts on screen, cigar in hand, turns to the camera and intones "It's a Long Day's Journey into Night. Let the parents eat the spinach!"