Archive for the ‘memory’ Tag

The Best Holiday Movies Are About Memories   Leave a comment

Turn Your Television On This Month. Please.

December 1, 2016

I’m still a kid. I love the holidays, and one of the things I enjoy this time of year is reliving Thanksgiving and Christmas memories through films. Turkey dinner was the sit-down altar where we communed together as a family. Film is where we see ourselves again or for the first time. Viewing can be particularly enjoyable when watching the film with friends or family, as we have favorite scenes—some in common and some unique to us. After all, memories are about life, real or imagined or some combination of the two. This month I’ve decided to offer you my list of ten films that are worth watching every holiday season, from Thanksgiving Day to New Years Day.

#10: Prancer: This 1989 film features a midwest farmer/single dad, his 9-year old daughter, and a reindeer named Prancer. It has sentimentality but also a first rate realism and charm. Directed by John Hancock Prancer stars Sam Elliott, Rebecca Harrell, and Cloris Leachman. Roger Ebert wrote “[Jessica is] a 9-year-old who still believes in Santa Claus, and uses logic to defend her position: If there isn’t a Santa, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did nine-year old Jessica’s mother go when she died?”. Heavy stuff or heady stuff? Either way, you can handle it and feel good about this unusually good holiday treat.

dec-mov-2#9: A Christmas Carol: There have been many film versions adapted from Charles Dickens’ story, but this 1951 version is my favorite. It features Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, and Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley. The story is timeless and worth watching every Christmas. Whether you become tearful or not, it’s a century old story, in a half-century old film, shot in glorious black and white, and it still delivers

#8: Home Alone: Few movie stars have had the ability to be both charming and annoying on screen and in real life, and all before the age of 12. Forget the annoying part. Macaulay Culkin helps drive this 1990 film with sufficient believability as the young child left home by highly distracted parents. Culkin benefits from the direction of Chris Columbus, the writing of John Hughes, and the comedic performances of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. It’s been a quarter century since the film was made yet the basic premise holds up. If it seems like too much work, watch it for Pesci and Stern. The film wouldn’t work without them as the bumbling thieves.

#7: The Santa Clause: Tim Allen’s turn in this 1994 holiday-flavored feature film was a surprisingly good idea. In short, Santa dies on the job, Tim Allen’s character steps in to save the day and discovers that he is now (and forever?) the new Santa Claus. It’s funny with some tugging at the heart. It’s the Twinkie of Christmas movies. Enjoy it and don’t think about the calories. The Washington Post had it right: “The Santa Clause would be another formulaic Christmas special without Tim Allen.”

#6: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Not all of the films from National Lampoon have been winners but this 1989 spinoff from the original Vacation is a lot of fun. Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo return as the Griswold parents, along with a new Audrey (Juliet Lewis) and a new Rusty (Johnny Galecki). It’s also worth watching Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicholas Guest as the way-too-hipster next door neighbors “Margo and Todd Chester”. We can watch the film and look back on our fond memories or on the horror of sharing Christmas with the entire family. Good fun.

#5: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: No holiday season would be complete without this 1987 film. One of Steve Martin’s better outings, and John Candy is as perfect as he can be. The unlikely twosome becomes mutually dependent as they attempt to travel from New York to Chicago by way of Kansas and Missouri in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. As with most films written and directed by John Hughes, the music is top notch (including Martin’s traumatized “you’re messin’ with the wrong guy”.) The film is wonderful and it always reminds me of how much the world misses John Candy.

#4: Miracle on 34th Street: On the surface this is a film about a nice old man who calls himself Kris Kringle and claims to be Santa Claus. Threatened with being declared insane, a young lawyer steps in to defend Kringle, arguing in court that he really is Santa Claus. While Kringle’s sanity is the central theme, the real centerpiece of the 1947 film is about a single mom’s journey (and ours) to have faith, and to believe in something that may be difficult or impossible to prove. While that sounds like religion, the faith here is far more about life itself. But it works on both levels. The cast is a who’s who of post WWII Hollywood faces: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Granville Sawyer, William Frawley, and Jerome Cowan.

#3: The Bishop’s Wife: This 1947 film is also about Christmas and faith. But relax, this is not a film that looks or feels anything like a tent-revival. It’s an intelligent story based on a visiting angel named Dudley (Cary Grant) entering the life of protestant minister Henry Brougham (David Niven), who’s marriage to wife Julia (Loretta Young) is tested along the way. There are numerous religious moments but the film is anything but preachy. There are lofty (sometimes heavenly) goals, a couple of sermons, a boys choir, some shopping, lunch at a French restaurant named Michel’s (of course), a few snobs, and some solid citizens. Sit back and simply let yourself get lost inside this film. Rounding out the cast are Elsa Lanchester, Regis Toomey, James Gleason, and Monty Woolley.

#2: It’s A Wonderful Life: Frank Capra presents the life and times of George Bailey and Mary Hatch (James Stewart and Donna Reed). In just over two hours, we are treated to their lives and ours. Like the old nursery rhyme, this 1947 film features tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, doctors, a rich man and more. As Bailey’s life moves forward, he’s forced to reflect on how he’s helped change things for the better, and with an angel’s help, he sees an alternate version of how his life—or lack thereof—could change everything and mov-no-1everyone. Like other Capra films, this one is rich in characters and character actors, including Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, and H.B. Warner. And for trivia buffs, there is the perfectly-cast voice of Moroni Olsen as Franklin, the never seen senior angel narrating the film.

#1: A Christmas Story: This 1983 film narrowly edged out the others for #1 simply because it speaks to me on so many levels. Instead of just seeing the enjoyable chaos surrounding the lives of the Parker family, I can clearly see my own family growing up in Milwaukee; our version was all Wisconsin, not Indiana. Yet like ‘old man Parker’, my father did swear at the furnace (and other things). I did want a BB gun for christmas. We lived in our version of that neighborhood, on that street, in that house and we had our own Bumpus family for neighbors. And there was plenty of innocent “drama” surrounding our lives as Christmas approached, but there was also the sense of family and time together. I love this film. Regardless of any memories I might like to forget, my reality is of a time when, as Jean Shepherd tells us, “all was right with the world”.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen


Tomorrow’s Memory Lane: Re-Enjoying Music and Music History   Leave a comment

The Highs and Lows: Part 1

August 27, 2015

When it comes to memorable music, we all have reference points in our personal music history. It’s when the melody or the lyrics or both touch us in unexpected ways, and stay with us. Trying to identify the “discovery moment” is an exercise in acute or selective memory. For example, to this day I know exactly where I was the day JFK was shot* (acute). I cannot, however, say with any certainty where I was when I first heard Ral Donner’s 1962 recording of “She’s Everything”, (a favorite of mine) other than I lived in Milwaukee and heard it on Top-40 radio (selective).

Those familiar with the analytical device known as the Bell Curve, understand that it’s a useful tool in the study of statistics, buying habits, trends, and new technologies. The concept can also be applied to my rambling narrative about how we embed our favorite recordings into our long-term memories. Our favorite songs don’t arrive en masse at birth,BELLC SWFTP nor do favorites always arrive chronologically. We often hear recordings that are new to us but in reality have been around for years. Regardless, each is added to an ever-growing collection of our favorite music as we grow to maturity. However, whether noticed or not, our readily available collection shrinks as we age, hence the Bell Curve imagery. The “missing” music doesn’t necessarily disappear, but rather favorites can recede from our memory until some outside stimulus awakens them.

Some of my favorite records—those that I use as touchstones—were, in fact, recordings I discovered after the fact; not when first released but well after a record’s introduction and immediate or ultimate success. Part of this was chance, as we all had a limited amount of time to listen to the radio and weren’t always listening exactly when the new hit was being played. One of the great things about recordings is that there is no expiration date on discovery, so we have the luxury of discovering music over days, weeks, months, years, or longer. Today’s millennial generation of music lovers is, to a large degree, a generation driven by social media. Instead of taking days, weeks, or months, their “discovery” can be in minutes or hours. The bottom line for all music lovers is that each discovery is the recognition of a personal, emotional preference, as in “I like that”, or “it speaks to me”. When we first hear the music is no less important than how we connect with any particular recording.

Jesse Lee Restaurant

Alice (back) David, Norman, Lee

Before the age of ten, while my mother, father, sister, brother, and I were still together as a family, we drove almost every summer from our home in Milwaukee to visit family in either New York, or Florida, or Texas. It was during a 1958 visit that one of my earliest rock ‘n’ roll memories was created. Of course there was music in the Chevy station wagon during the drive. The real memory, however, was in Dallas, where my grandfather Jesse owned a little diner on the fringe of downtown. From our booth I could see right into the kitchen and observe Alice, Jesse’s cook creating her memorable meals for the regular crowd of local Texans; and for a ten-year old from Milwaukee.

About the same time that Alice placed our lunch in front of us (roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy for me), Jesse’s jukebox kicked in playing “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley. One of the most played records of 1957, it didn’t matter that the record had been out for a year, had already been up and down the charts, and had gone through my 10-year old brain hundreds of times before that day at the diner. From that moment and continuing today, I connect “All Shook Up” to the taste of Alice’s roast beef, and that’s a pleasant memory.

The “connectors” of music to our brain—our personal pleasure or pain receptors—are always waiting to be triggered by some moment, some memory. Whether you create a list with pen and paper or on your computer, or you decide to reorganize your iPod playlist, the point is simple: music is indispensable in our lives. It can evoke roast beef or roses; it can be Elvis or the Eagles; Beethoven or Billy Joel; or it can be Dallas or Milwaukee. It’s where we were then, and where we are now. At the very least, music is a regular accent to what goes on around us, in the foreground or as a backdrop. At its very best, our memorable music is a soundtrack to the events of our lives, from cradle to grave. We can’t relive our lives, and we can’t dwell on what’s past. But, we are absolutely allowed to let that smile cross our faces and embrace the music we’ve loved. Don’t wonder why the music stays with us. Just be grateful that it does.

David Steffen

© 2015 David Steffen



“Tomorrow’s Memory Lane”, is from a song by Henry Gross***:

We were talking about the old days, Down on Flatbush Avenue

From the leathers and the ducktails, To the jet black pointed shoes

Just a singing ‘Hold On, I’m a Coming’ ’til our voices gave way

Just a singing ‘Hold On, I’m a Coming’ and God bless Sam & Dave

I know what a flash it is going back to where we came

But there ain’t no use in getting all hung up trying to live on Memory Lane.


Note: An edited version of this post is available in the September issue of The Lighthouse Peddler.

Posted August 27, 2015 by Jazzdavid in History, Media, Music History

Tagged with , , ,

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