Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Leftovers -- Charles Dickens, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Gordon Ramsay

I hope everybody is having a happy holiday.

I wasn't able to get home this year. A friend of mine was in the same situation. So we got tickets to the American Ballet Theatre production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, which was playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So that was a lot of fun. Then on Christmas we had a homemade dinner and watched some episodes of Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares.

I've been reading a little here and there. I tried to get into a few books after finishing up Moll Flanders, but nothing was really interesting me.

But finally, I managed to get through Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and The Chimes, though I still didn't follow too well.

The Chimes has a similar plot structure to A Christmas Carol. But The Chimes takes place on New Year's Eve, instead of on Christmas, and the main character of The Chimes, Toby Veck, is a gentle-hearted, poor man, instead of a hard-hearted rich man, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

Everybody is pretty familiar with the plot of A Christmas Carol, I suppose. I don't think I've ever actually read Dickens' actual story. To be quite honest, I'm pretty sure all my memories of A Christmas Carol revolve around the Disney version of the story, where Mickey Mouse plays the poor clerk Bob Cratchit, and Scrooge McDuck plays the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. But the plot of the cartoon is very faithful to the Dickens story.

I would say -- maybe it was just that I wasn't paying attention -- but I would say that I'm not so fond of Dickens' style in these two stories. I find that the plot elements get a bit too jumpy. The scenes shift so quickly in both of the stories, and Dickens sometimes doesn't give a straightforward relation of the elements of the scene.

It's confusing enough to get one's bearings on where one is in the story when the scenes are so jumpy and elliptically described. But then, if there's also some kind of dramatic argument also being made, this is also kind of elliptically described, making the scene even more disorienting.

I understand that there's supposed to be a dream-like element in both of these stories. And in this sense, Dickens' style kind of reminds me of how Jack Kerouac sometimes elliptically remarks on his dreams in his Book of Dreams.

I also got the feeling that, in some way, the plot of A Christmas Carol was -- not an excuse, but an occasion for a couple other things that Dickens wanted to do. I think one thing Dickens wanted to do was describe Christmas dinner scenes in a kind of heroic poetic style, like you might see dinners described in Homer, or in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The tables are filled with food. There are huge dances, great, wonderfully fun parties, and so forth.

Probably my favorite scene of all, though, isn't related to a dinner, but to people buying items for their dinners from the local markets. The passage is filled with color and cheer. But I think it's characteristic of the beauty with which Dickens describes the Christmas dinners.

"The poulterers' shops were still half open and the fruiterers' were radiant in their glory. There were great, round, pot-bellined baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers' benevolence, to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people's mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner."

But I think the other thing that Dickens wanted to do was describe mystical scenes and mystical figures. He has some really wonderful scenes describing the way ghosts look and act, and the way spirits move through the world.

I think a lot of these scenes are really well-known, through the traditional telling of the story. When Jacob Marley appears on the door-knocker, for instance, or when Marley, again, appears, with the chain tied around his waist, and all the bank-boxes attached to the chain. The three Christmas ghosts are also fairly well-known.

But there was one scene which I didn't remember from A Christmas Carol, which I found rather beautiful. The way that Dickens describes ghosts in this scene almost sounds like he's describing holographic figures. In this scene, ghosts, their presences unknown to the living, are trying to help the humans through their difficulties, but to no effect.

"The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to his ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below, upon a door-step. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever."

There is a similar effect regarding phantoms in The Chimes. In The Chimes, Toby Veck, a porter near a church believes that he hears the bells in the church's bell tower speaking to him.

On the night of New Year's Eve, Toby's daughter Meg comes and tells Toby that she's planning to get married to a blacksmith named Richard. In the middle of this, however, a rich alderman and his cohorts come up and give Meg and Richard a hard time about getting married while they're poor. Toby doesn't stand up for Meg and Richard, partly because, deep down inside, he feels like the alderman is right to feel the way he does about poor people.

Toby ends up helping out a man from Ireland, I believe, named Will Fern, and his little niece, Lillian. They were just about to walk into a trap, set by the alderman, to get them delivered to prison. Instead, Toby has Will and Lillian spend the night at his and Meg's house.

That night, however, Toby hears the bells calling to him, stronger than ever. Toby goes to the bells, only to find out that he, too is a spirit -- and that, without his being aware of it, he's been a spirit for ten years! He'd tripped and fallen to his death on his way to the bells. But he now has the ability to travel through time and see what has happened to his family since the day he didn't consent to the marriage of Meg and Richard.

There are a whole bunch of horrible things that have happened for William, Lillian, Richard, and Meg, including Meg ending up having an illegitimate child with Richard, Richard ending up dying, and Meg attempting to commit suicide by throwing herself into a river with her baby! But thankfully Toby realizes that he should consent to the marriage. So the spirits let him go back to the time before he was called by them on New Year's Eve night. He consents to the marriage, and everybody lives happily ever after.

But the scene where Toby first encounters the ghosts of the bell tower is really interesting, like an amplification of the ghost scene from A Christmas Carol. I think A Christmas Carol had been written in 1843 and The Chimes in 1845. So the scene in The Chimes really could be a visual development of the scene in A Christmas Carol.

"He saw the tower, whither his charmed footsteps had brought him, swarming with dwarf phantoms, spirits, elfin creatures of the Bells. He saw them leaping, flying, dropping, pouring from the Bells without a pause. He saw them, round him on the ground; above him, in the air; clambering from him, by the ropes below; looking down upon him, from the massive, iron-girded beams; peeping in upon him, from the massive iron-girded beams; peeping in upon him, through the chinks and loopholes in the walls; spreading away and away from him in enlarging circles, as the water ripples give way to a huge stone that suddenly comes plashing in among them. He saw them, of all aspects and all shapes. ... He saw the air thick with them. ... Stone and brick, and slate, and tile, became transparent to him as to them. He saw them in the houses, busy at the sleepers' beds. He saw them soothing people in their dreams; he saw them beating them with knotted whips; he saw them yelling in their ears; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them playing softest music on their pillows; he saw them cheering some with the songs of birds and the perfume of flowers; he saw them flashing awful faces on the troubled rest of others, from enchanted mirrors which they carried in their hands."

Keeping along the lines of the mystical elements of these two stories, I should say that one interesting thing about Dickens' novel Bleak House is also discussed in A Christmas Carol: the concept of spontaneous combustion.

In Bleak House, an old woman knows a secret about the main character. The woman is most likely going to tell the secret. But the night before the old woman has a chance to tell the secret -- she spontaneously combusts! She bursts into flames spontaneously!

Now, I thought that was just an interesting device that Dickens was using for that book. But it turns out that this must be a minor idee fixe of Dickens. Because it pops up in A Christmas Carol. Only, this time, spontaneous combustion is less active -- Scrooge only imagines that he has spontaneously combusted.

As Scrooge is waiting for the Ghost of Christmas Present to visit him, his bed is bathed in an indistinct light, which is so uncanny to Scrooge, that he fears his body might be preparing for spontaneous combustion.

"Now, being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the Bell struck One, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clck proclaimed the hour; and whicch, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at; and was sometimes apprehensive that he might be at that very moment an interesting case of spontaneous combustion, without having the consolation of knowing it."

This passage got me a little bit excited because it dealt with a phenomenon which is part of Charles Fort's universe of phenomena. Charles Fort is not a big fan of attributing anything to the spirit world. So he wouldn't attribute the lights Scrooge saw to ghosts. Nor would he connect spontaneous combustion with the spiritual world.

Fort's idea of spontaneous combustion is, rather, that it is a result of someone holding so steadfastly to their resolutions, in spite of all the absurdities of holding monomaniacally to an ideal, that they become "translated into the Positive Absolute," which would be Fort's idea of going to Heaven. They can often do this by catching on fire and flying up to the stars. Fort seems to believe that the Prophet Elijah, for instance, was translated into the Positive Absolute, and that people only think he rode on a fiery chariot up into Heaven.

But The Chimes also has a Fortean passage. Spontaneous combustion is a less-discussed topic in Fort's works. But the greatest of all Fortean topics is rains of unusual objects. Fort collected all kinds of instances of rains of blood, rains of frogs, rains of fish, and so forth.

Fort believed that these rains came from other worlds. He believed that the conventional scientific explanation behind these rains, that they were the result of a whirlwind -- i.e. that a whirlwind lifted frogs or fish out of one location and dropped them in another -- was totally incorrect.

Dickens, however, about seventy-five years before Fort's writings, uses the conventional scientific explanation as part of a sight-gag to point out just how frail the poor porter Toby Veck is, and how violently windy the New Year's Eve night really is. Nevertheless, the passage, in its speaking of the "strange corners" of the world, does have a Fortean kind of undertone to it.

"The wind came tearing round the corner -- especially the east wind -- as if it had salied forth, express, from the confines of the earth, to have a blow at Toby. ... Incontinently [Toby's] little white apron would be caught up over his head like a naughty boy's garments, and his feeble little cane would be seen to wrestle and struggle unavailingly in his hand, and his legs would undergo tremendous agitation, and Toby himself all aslant, and facing now in this direction, and now in that, would be so banged and buffeted, and touzled, and worried, and hustled, and lifted off his feet, as to render it a state of things but one degree removed from a positive miracle, that he wasn't carried bodily into the air as a colony of frogs or snails or other very portable creatures sometimes are, and rained down again, to the great astonishment of the natives, on some strange corner of the world where ticket-porters are unknown."

I think everybody can see a direct line, thematically, from A Christmas Carol to the classic film It's a Wonderful Life. In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge, a hard-hearted, rich man, is led, by three ghosts, to see the effects of his life circumstances on his own personality, as well as the effects of his own personality on the life circumstances of the people around him. The Christmas Future, or Christmas Yet To Come, is a Christmas altogether without Scrooge.

It's a Wonderful Life shows the Jimmy Stewart character in trouble with a hard-hearted, rich man. The Jimmy Stewart character actually wonders what life would be like if he had never existed. So an angel comes down from heaven and shows him what life would have been like if had never existed. The Jimmy Stewart character decides he wants to live, after all, and everybody in the community helps him, and he lives happily ever after.

Now, it's interesting to see, from the perspective of different time periods, how a very similar plot theme is explored in two very different ways. A Christmas Carol is a story of sin and redemption. The theme is very Christian, in the sense that Scrooge sees the roots of his error and the effects of his error, and is then brought into a state of absolute penance. From this point forward, he is redeemed, and he can have a good effect on the world.

But in It's a Wonderful Life, the Jimmy Stewart character is already a very good character. He isn't led by an angel to see the error of his ways. He's led by an angel to see that he's done a lot of good things. The error, it turns out, would arise if people like him weren't around.

But I think the difference between A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life is the expression of a loss of innocence.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's little sister dies. Scrooge removes himself from the world and becomes more influenced by society, to the point of completely alienating the woman he's in love with. The woman leaves Scrooge. Now Scrooge, loveless, is completely swayed by the money-making, business-like aspect of society.

Scrooge's real moral turning point is when he sees Tiny Tim, who is like a mirror of his little sister. Now that Scrooge sees that there is still innocence in this world, but that, like Tiny Tim, it is ailing, Scrooge begins to understand the importance of preserving this innocence.

It's a Wonderful Life, however, is, in itself a kind of exploration of the simultaneous loss of and preservation of innocence. The Jimmy Stewart character has been beaten down by society: his father has died, he's had to take over the business, he didn't get to be a war-hero like his brother, etc. But, all through this time, he's preserved his sense of idealism, which could be seen as a kind of innocence.

But now he's faced with the prospect of being thrown into jail for something he didn't even do. After fighting over and over again to preserve his ideal of a pure, innocent world, the Jimmy Stewart character is finally overwhelmed by the fact that the world isn't as pure and ideal as he would like to think it is. And, confronted with his own sense of guilt in such a guilty world, he wishes he were dead, that he'd never existed in the world. But, from this point, he's led to see how he's actually preserved innocence and purity within this dirty, guilty world.

The penultimate development of this plot theme was explored in Rod Serling's Twilight Zone episode, "Cavender Is Coming." In that episode, comedian Carol Burnett plays a down-on-her-luck woman in New York. She can't hold down a job. She has aspirations to be an artist. But she hasn't gotten a break yet. But she's a generally happy person, and she's well-loved by everybody in her neighborhood.

Up in Heaven, an inept, cigar-smoking angel named Cavender is given one last chance to prove that he's a worthy angel. If he fails, he'll be sent to Hell. If he succeeds, he'll finally get his wings.

Cavender is assigned to help the Carol Burnett character to have a better life. So he practices all this magic to give Carol Burnnett tons of money and a huge mansion and all kinds of glamorous friends. But Carol Burnett ends up being completely miserable with this life, and she wants to go back to her former life. Cavender lets Carol Burnett go back.

Heaven is at first angry that Cavender hasn't seemed to improve Carol Burnett's life. But then Heaven sees that Carol Burnett really is happy with her life, just the way it is. So Cavender is given his wings. His full-time job, now, is doing whatever he'd done for Carol Burnett, for people like Carol Burnett, to show them that they can really be happy in their own lives.

I guess A Christmas Carol, then, is a story about a man who isn't really reflective about his own place in the world. He reflects on his place in the world, and he sees that he needs to change the effect he has on the world. It's a Wonderful Life is about a man who is very aware of the world, but is a little innocent about the world itself. He needs to come to terms with the world as it is. And "Cavender Is Coming" is about a woman who is okay with herself and the world, but is pressured by the glitzy images of society and has to come to terms with herself as she is, compared to those idealized, glitzy, mass-media images.

I think that there is probably another development on this story: the sitcom. There are so many sitcoms that have the "what if I was never born" theme as one of their episodes. I haven't really thought about that.

But I think the ultimate development of this theme is the scene in Back to the Future 2 where Marty McFly travels to a world where the 2010s Biff has, by sneaking a gambling history book back to his 1950s self, managed to make his 1980s self rich. The 1980s sequence which results from this is very much like the film It's a Wonderful Life. Marty has never been born, and Marty's hometown is completely trashed out, some kind of town overrrun with gambling.

But in this case, Marty didn't really have any willful influence on these events. The question which created this alternate reality isn't whether Marty had come to terms with his place in society or the idealized innocence of society. It's fate, really. Marty sees one aspect of fate playing itself out. And, in order to stop it, Marty has to fight against someone who he already knows is bad.

I think that Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is similar to A Christmas Carol. But it also develops with plot-themes that are more like those of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Charles Kingsley's Water Babies, and Kenji Miyazawa's Milky Way Railroad. These stories are all about trips to the land of the dead. And I believe that The Nutcracker is a trip to the land of the dead.

In this story, on Christmas Eve, a little girl receives a Nutcracker doll from a magician. The little boys pick on the girl, and almost seem to break the doll. The girl is horribly depressed. But later that night, she is spirited away, first to a land of soldier-toys fighting an army of mice, and then to the land of the Sugar-Plum Fairy, who puts on a show for both her and the Nutcracker, who, by this time, has become a little boy in a soldier's uniform.

It seems to me that the real conflict behind this story is that the little girl has to grow up. She may be experiencing her first romantic attraction to a boy. And so she's at the age where she has to give up her dolls.

Or -- I should say -- that that's what society says. Myself, being an adult baby, I don't believe that anybody ever has to give up their dolls. And if a boy wants to play with dolls, even when he's a grown man, he shouldn't feel bad in the slightest for doing it. And if he wants to play with dolls while wearing a diaper and sucking on a pacifier, then more power to him!

But, ever since the times of Ancient Greece, when girls, reaching "maturity," had to sacrifice their dolls to Artemis, I believe, burning them in one of them Artemis' caves, the idea has been that there is an age when girls should give up their dolls. And, even though the magician gives the little girl her Nutcracker doll, it is her last doll, and she will probably have to give it up as well, soon.

The fact that the boys bully the girl and even almost break the Nutcracker doll shows again that the girl's libido is shifting more into the world of romance. But the fact that the girl sees herself as potentially having to deal with the bullying and breaking nature of the world, as it shows itself to her through the boys, is a bit too much for the little girl to have to deal with right away.

Like the Jimmy Stewart character in It's a Wonderful Life, the girl has to deal with the facts of life. She has to deal with the fact that the world isn't as innocent and ideal as she'd like it to be. But she's so conflicted by the difference between her ideal world and the world of reality that she doesn't even want to live anymore.

So the Nutcracker accompanies the girl on the journey she wants to go on -- a journey to the land of the dead. From here, I'm not sure how the development works. It seems like the dance itself must be a kind of mandala. The girl and the boy see dance after dance, each one more beautiful than the next. And finally, the girl and the boy see themselves as adults, dancing beautifully with each other.

I feel like what must be being said here is that we all have to deal with a certain element of meanness in the world. But if we can get through the meanness and hold onto the core aspects of ourselves -- partly by realizing the core goodness and skill of the people around us, and partly by realizing our own core goodness and skill -- then we can achieve very beautiful things and even find love in the world.

The girl, I believe, finding out this truth in the land of the dead, is finally able to return to the land of the living.

The American Ballet Theatre performance of The Nutcracker had, I believe, a new choreography by the Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. Some of it was really nice.

Unfortunately, I don't know enough about dance to discuss the choreography very well. What I found about a lot of the movement in the first Act was that it was a little disorganized and choppy. I also felt that the scene where the marionettes dance for the children was that they didn't produce too much of a marionette kind of feel.

But the end of the first Act, with the snow fairies, was incredibly beautiful. And almost all the dance in the second Act was really lovely. The first scene, where we're introduced to all the different dancers, is great.

The different "national" dancers were all nice. The Spanish dance had a lot of flaring up of skirts, which was visually very lovely. The male Spanish dancers also did a lot of jumping, which I generally tend to like.

There was a scene with, I suppose, an Arab man and his harem. It was pretty entertaining. And there were a lot of lifting and sliding motions, where the man would lift or slide some of the harem women, or the women would lift or slide the man. But there was kind of, as I remember it, a lot of running, too. It was more like running than dancing, which, in my opinion, kind of messed up the rhythm a bit.

The scene with the Chinese man and woman was incredible. It was very dynamic. The man was constantly lifting the woman up into the air or spinning her around vertically. I liked it a lot.

There was a scene with three male dancers who wore red and white suits and big hats almost like inverted cones. Their dance was humorous, with a lot of twisty joint movements and mock-fights. It was pretty fun.

There was also a dance with five women. The women wore pink tophats, green blouses with pink lacing, and puffy, pink skirts with green zigzag designs along the edge of the skirts. They did moves with a lot of spins in them. The spins were really nice, and the visual aspect of the spins was heightened by the skirts and green zigzag patterns.

There was also a very big scene with, I believe, twenty female dancers and four male dancers. The female dancers were all in colorful, flower-like dresses. The male dancers were all dressed like bees. The dance of the bees and flowers was dazzlingly beautiful. There was a lot of variety to the dance. There were a lot of impressive jumps and throws and interchanges of positions between the dancers. And it all had a good rhytmm.

The dance between the head female and male dancers, who were like adult versions of the girl and the Nutcracker-turned-boy, was pretty great. The dance had two pas de deux, where the two danced together. The pas de deux were really fabulous. They were dynamic and had good structure and rhythm. But there were also solos for the man and woman. Those I liked less. I'm pretty sure it was just because of my own lack of understanding. But I couldn't catch the structure or rhythm of the solos.

I unfortunately don't have a lot of time, now -- but I did want to discuss Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares a little bit. I'd never seen the show before. My friend, not being able to get home for Christmas either, had invited me over for dinner. While eating, my friend showed me a You Tube episode of the United States version of Kitchen Nightmares. My friend, a huge fan of reality shows, is addicted to this show in particular.

The episode was so interesting to me that we watched one more United States episode and then two United Kingdom episodes. The episodes we watched dealt with the SushiKo, Oceana, Walnut Tree Inn, and Curry Lounge restaurants.

I don't want to give plot summaries of these episodes. The U.S. episodes are available on YouTube, and the U.K. episodes are available, in the U.S., on Netflix.

What I like about the U.K. episodes is what they show of local life around the restaurants. The Walnut Tree Inn is located near Abergavenny, in Wales. The landscapes of Abergavenny are incredible. And the town scenes are really nice, as well. It's nice to see the booth-shops and the lovely charm of the old town.

The Curry Lounge is located in Nottingham. This town is also nice. But we get to see a lot of non-tourist aspects of it! We see a cricket-field. We see a local grocery store, where Gordon and the Curry Lounge's head-chef, Khan, go find some ingredients for new dishes. We see a plaza where some Indian dancers perform to promote the re-vamped Curry Lounge.

But what's also interesting about the show is the way that Ramsay explores the way the restaurant is working, in terms of the people at the restaurant. Ramsay sees the manager of the Walnut Tree, for instance, as a very intelligent, very charming person who can "charm the pants off of anybody and sell a really good bottle of wine." Ramsay has a really intelligent argument with the manager, trying to convince him to reduce to prices of his food and work on making money by pushing the manager's personal asset: his ability to sell wine.

Also at the Walnut Tree, Ramsay gets involved with the two sous chefs -- one of whom is a good, creative chef and good at organizing his staff, but who is a bit too cocky and not a really great team player; and the other who is an incredibly talented chef, but who is so shy that when he tries to address the staff he can barely be heard.

The personalities at the Curry Lounge are also very interesting. The head chef is a perfectionist with a real passion for cooking local dishes. But he's hindered by the manager-owner, Raz, who has come into the restaurant business after having been a pharmaceutical salesman, and still has a bit too much of a "pick and mix," "please everybody" kind of outlook to his menu, which leads to a kind of a bland menu.

The United States version of the show is a bit crazier. The SushiKo episode was actually nice. In that episode, a Japanese sushi chef, Akira, who had started up his own restaurant had begun neglecting his duties as a chef and was getting overwhelmed with the manager duties, which his wife was actually a little more geared to take care of. So Ramsay had to get Akira back into the role of chef, where Akira seemed a lot happier.

But the Oceana episode was totally crazy. It was entertaining as hell. But it was just a total Jerry Springer-esque reality-show kind of situation. Violence, ignorance, filth -- they had it all at Oceana. And things eventually got so bad that Ramsay had to walk out, not even halfway through the project. He had to give up. Things were too bad. But it was still pretty entertaining.