Wednesday, 10 December 2008

What Do You Get A Diogenarian For Xmas?

“Xmas is a time for being surrounded by all your loved ones,” said Blenkinsop.
“All expecting expensive presents,” interjected Millhouse.
“As if,” said Ferraby, “there wasn’t enough getting and spending already. As the poet Wordsworth said. Or was it Dickens?”
“You just feel pressured the whole time,” commented Millhouse.
Blenkinsop cited the Credit Crunch as the reason he would not be buying anything but the cheapest gifts this year. Millhouse pointed out he had been buying cheap gifts for years before the Crunch was heard of.
“Well, I can remember the time when –“ joined in old Lambert.
“Here we go,” muttered Millhouse sotte voce.
… For you can hear the same conversation every year at this time. The problem is, you see, that Diogenarians are meant to be above all this getting and spending. The debate always kicks off as we plan the Club Xmas Dinner outing.
Someone always argues, as Blenkinsop put it, “Xmas is a precious, sacred time that should be spent entirely with one’s family.”
“That’s how Boxing Day Sales were invented,” retorts Millhouse with typical cynicism, “After two days of family togetherness, people will seize any excuse to get out the house away from their relations. The rest of the time you just sit there on the sofa staring catatonically at the box, showing wall-to-wall repeats, garish Xmas specials and endless flashy trailers and loud commercials.”
The conversation turns inevitably to the Christmases of old black-and-white films – A Xmas Carol with Alastair Sim as Uncle Scrooge, The Holly And The Ivy with Ralph Richardson as the out-of-touch vicar, and so on. Those were the days when there was only one TV channel, just called BBC-TV, and they only ever showed one feature film per year, on Xmas Day - something distinguished and worthy like High Noon or that Swedish nature film about a year on a farm, The Great Adventure.
Today, we are surrounded by electronic media, or “digital choice” as they call it – meaning we are spoilt for choice, with almost nothing we want to watch. But the coming of the age of electronic media also means you can retain one aspect of personal choice: you can watch films with no commercials, without staying up late, or queuing at the cinema, on DVD. In this, many of us are in favour of modern development, and we now have a regular Club film evening, with films viewed via an overhead projector casting a large image on the wall above the lounge fireplace.
Watching a memorable film creates an occasion that can be enjoyed in a group, whether family or friends. For the same reason, it makes for a natural present, for regardless of who gives it or gets it, the whole group can enjoy it together. It becomes a shared narrative, a winter rite going back to the practice of tales told around the campfire.
Last year, for the benefit of those who like to spend Xmas in solitary contemplation with a good book or two, we put up a list with some suggested Xmas holiday reading of suitably Diogenarian works, accounts of being stranded on a desert island with only a few possessions, and so on. This year, we can consider some twenty suggestions, made around the Club over the year, of films which reflect the pervasive nature of the Diogenarian view. That is, this year they are not the Robinson-Crusoe survival adventures whose narratives are far removed from the lives of most people, but reflect the Diogenarian theme in ways that are closer to home, and to contemporary life.
Some of course, still prefer the austere black-and-white films they grew up with, and several titles were suggested here. One was
My Man Godfrey, a Depression-Era screwball comedy, categorised by the US Library of Congress as "culturally significant." A Bostonian living as a down-and-out, picked up during a socialite’s scavenger hunt and hired as a butler, proceeds to show up the thoughtlessness of the idle rich. Another such, with more of a club-versus-family theme, is the 1930s Laurel & Hardy comedy called Sons Of The Desert in America and Fraternally Yours in Britain, where the boys’ wives refuse to let them go to a fraternal-lodge convention they have sworn to attend. Black-and-white was also used extensively for documentary, and a recent DVD set, Land Of Promise, covers 40 years of the British Documentary Movement, showing how industrial shorts portrayed modern industrial society with all its problems on-screen for the first time, at the same time looking beyond material considerations towards a more enlightened view.
Unlike US cinema during WWII, British films did not promote jingoism, but an appreciation of more mystical values linked to the landscape. In
I Know Where I’m Going, a wilful young woman has her resolve to marry into money melt away during an enforced wartime sojourn in the Celtic twilight of a Hebridean island. Much later, in the Thatcherite 80s, a similar setting would seduce an American businessman, sent in to buy up a village for an oil company, away from his monetary values in Local Hero.
British postwar films also took a wryly cynical view of success, and of patriotism, for example in two black comedies with Alec Guinness:
Last Holiday, from an original JB Priestley script, and Our Man In Havana, from the Graham Greene novel. (To say more might spoil plot surprises.) Even that staple of postwar British cinema, the war drama, took a more cynical view in films like Ice Cold In Alex, where it is not the idea of Queen and Country that keeps the hero going across the Sahara so much as the prospect of an ice-cold lager in Alexandria. A Burmese jungle-trek survival experience also brings the emotionally dead and suicidal hero back to life in The Purple Plain, an early colour location-made war film.
Black-and-white was also used by lower-budget European films right through the 1960s. Examples of these include the final part of Antonioni’s trilogy of studies in contemporary urban alienation,
Eclipse. Made just before he made Blow-Up, it ends with five minutes of footage of modern Rome cityscape shots from which the characters have eerily vanished. Another European example is the 1969 Ma Nuit Chez Maud (My Night At Maud's), set over Xmas in a bleak French provincial town. It has no music score, only the type of philosophical conversation French cinema is famous for, here about trying to live your life around the idea of resolving Catholic moral dilemmas using Pascal’s Wager.
The tradition of philosophical conversation continued into the colour era with films such as Louis Malle’s
My Dinner With Andre. Here, a theatre director relates how he stepped outside his middle-class comfort zone after being buried alive in a Polish forest encounter-therapy session, and tries to convince his dinner companion to give up his electric blanket, to appreciate life all the more keenly.
Experiencing the Great Outdoors via a camping trip of some sort as a character-testing mechanism is in fact a part of American culture long satirised in films such as the US independent-cinema anarchic spoof
Hallelujah The Hills!, and Hollywood romantic comedies like Man’s Favorite Sport? and A New Leaf. Similarly, though Woody Allen is a confirmed urbanite, the psychological impact of Nature is part of his A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, where animal primitivism rears its head amidst the civilised philosophical discussion during a 1900s country weekend in upper New York State. Coming to terms with the North American wilderness is given a more realistic and complex treatment in fact-based dramas such as Jeremiah Johnson and Never Cry Wolf.
There are still many who prefer colourful tales set in remote locations, and there are several works which nevertheless reflect a more Diogenarian worldview where other values are shown to be more eternal and significant than any stock colonialist ideas. First is
Black Narcissus, about the psychological effects that a posting to a derelict Himalayan monastery has on a group of British and Irish nuns. Then there are a pair of 1970s modern, slightly satiric, adventure dramas: The Man Who Would Be King, from the Kipling story, has a pair of cast-off British adventurers in a similar setting, discovering the dangers of colonialist assumptions, and the vaguely fact-based hostage-crisis story The Wind And The Lion, about the appeal of an older and wilder way of life to an increasingly buttoned-down and politicized society.
Finally, Xmas being a family time, there is
My Family & Other Animals, turned into a feature film by the BBC in 2005, from Gerald Durrell’s memoir of his family’s retreat from Bournemouth to idyllic natural surroundings in Corfu, where the eccentric family pursued the bohemian life each in their way, until WWII forced them home again.
That’s over twenty, and if you can’t find something there, a Merry Xmas anyway.

Xmas banquet cartoon

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