Which is pretty much how writer Dan Fogelman approached the script of Disney’s 50th animated feature, the somewhat musical, somewhat comic version of the Rapunzel story, called Tangled.
The movie is true to its roots – the Disney formulas are there. Old wicked woman, cute animal sidekick, everyone modestly dressed, slapstick comedy.
Only Fogelman did something that none of the earlier Disney musicals ever did, in my opinion: Amid all the clamor and comedy, he created human relationships, funny because they were true.
It all centers around Rapunzel’s relationship with her supposed mother, the selfish old woman who kidnapped her because she needed Rapunzel’s magical hair (plus a song) to keep her young.
Apart from the hair, there isn’t a speck of magic in the movie, unless you count a preternaturally talented horse. Instead, what you get is a young woman who has been manipulated by her mother through the standard “I’m only thinking of you; what’s a mother to do; so this is the thanks I get” repertoire of emotional manipulation.
Rapunzel responds to her mother as you might expect from a smart and feisty teenager. She tries to wheedle and manipulate right back – only Rapunzel actually means what she’s saying, which imposes a terrible limitation on her in all this game-playing: Rapunzel can only say what she means. Wicked ur-mother, on the other hand, can say whatever will get the results she wants.
Enter Flynn Rider, thief and double-crosser, who climbs Rapunzel’s tower only to get beaned by Rapunzel’s frying pan. The slapstick of Rapunzel’s efforts to neutralize this invader are so brilliant that I laughed till I cried. How many face-plants can you resort to before they stop being funny? I still don’t know, and they used a lot of them.
Inevitably, Flynn wheedles her out of the tower, and then we get the most brilliant comedy of the whole movie, as Rapunzel goes bipolar, thrilled to be free and see the beautiful world, and at the same time appalled at her own ingratitude and disobedience to her beloved mother.
Because that’s the great secret. Just because a mother is manipulative and selfish doesn’t mean her daughter doesn’t love her. It takes a lot to kill a child’s love – in this case a whole movie.
But it isn’t just a wonderfully funny comedy and a pleasantly adequate musical: It’s also deeply moving at times. The powerful symbolism of the little hot-air balloons that the king and queen launch every year on Rapunzel’s birthday, in honor of their kidnapped daughter, becomes a powerful emblem of love, of hope amidst mourning.
The king and queen never speak. They don’t have to. We understand their grief; we understand every nuance of their feelings at the reunion with their daughter. (Oh, right, that’s a spoiler, because you didn’t even think of the possibility that Rapunzel might be restored to her family.)
The final confrontation among Flynn, Rapunzel and the wicked old woman is perfect, and the feelings the movie reaches for are well-earned. There was no weaseling, either – harsh things happen. We experience a noble romantic tragedy.
Which then turns to a eucatastrophe, which really would spoil things for me to recount. Suffice it to say that at the end, my family and I sat there in awe.
What a year for animations this has been! How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 and Tangled are, all three, better than the best of the live action movies.
And yes, I’m including Inception in that comparison, because, clever and well-made as that movie is, it ended with a cheap trick and a cheat; on a deeper level, it asked for us to care about a relationship that we never really experienced.
It’s just as well that animated films have been given their own Oscar category, however. There is little chance the Oscar voters, who are largely actors, would place the work of animators and voice actors above the achievements of live actors like themselves. Inception remains the favorite and will probably win; that wouldn’t be a bad choice at all, because it’s a brilliant movie.
But for me, this year the Best Picture category won’t be half as interesting as this three-way race between How to Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 and Tangled in the Best Animated Feature category.
The nostalgia and love of Toy Story 3 may make that the favorite of many, perhaps most. But there were two previous movies to build up our emotional investment in the characters. Tangled achieved it all in this one film.
And what a shame for the makers of Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole. These were all delightful films, into which many talented people poured years of their lives. It’s merely an unfortunate coincidence that they appeared in the same year as three genuine masterpieces of animated storytelling.
As I watched the brilliant mother-daughter interplay in Tangled, I couldn’t help but be reminded, again and again, of Deborah Tannen’s outstanding book You’re Wearing That? Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.
Tannen burst onto the scene as a researcher and writer in 1990 with her book about communication differences between men and women, You Just Don’t Understand.
It seemed to me that this was the source of every intelligent idea in the much bigger bestseller, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, just as Eric Berne’s seminal Games People Play was the source of every important idea in I’m OK, You’re OK.
What I didn’t realize in the decades since I read You Just Don’t Understand is that Tannen didn’t sit still and rest on her laurels. She has come out with other books on communication between sisters (You Were Always Mom’s Favorite!), within families (I Only Say This Because I Love You), between men and women at work (Talking from 9 to 5), between friends (Conversational Style) and in relationships (That’s Not What I Meant!).
The book I happened to pick up, though, was You’re Wearing That? I am neither a mother nor a daughter, so I may not seem to be in the target audience. But I have seen mothers and daughters close-at-hand for many years, and I found Tannen’s treatment of their fraught relationships to be compassionate yet clear-headed, fair to both sides but not blind to the fact that not everybody’s motives are pure.
Over Thanksgiving, my wife and her sister had a conversation with my daughter and my niece. None of them had read Tannen’s book, yet each mother-daughter pair laughed aloud together as they recounted particular moments that might have come straight out of You’re Wearing That?
Our daughter, who went through her teen years with long blond hair, told of how my wife would stop her as she was heading out the door to go to high school. “Did you brush your hair?” asked my wife. Oh, how annoying! Especially because usually the hair had not been brushed. Now our daughter, so irritated at the time, could laugh and say, “Day after day, her nagging saved me from going to school looking slept-in!”
Then her cousin, who went through some serious health problems in high school that caused her weight to fluctuate wildly at times, said, “And how many times did we pull up at a drive-through and when I asked for fries, Mom would ask, ‘Are you sure you need fries right now?'” But she admitted now that this only happened during her dangerous weight-gain episodes, and her mother’s nagging certainly saved her much needless distress. “I really didn’t need the fries,” she said.
It’s a love-hate – or, rather, a grateful-annoyed – thing. And it changes in meaning as the daughters become adults. What feels to a daughter like manipulation and control can seem to the mother like a continuation of her love and concern for her daughter.
Tannen is an excellent writer. She’s also a first-rate researcher and, I daresay, clinician. While she doesn’t do experimental science per se, she is very good at eliciting, collecting and interpreting stories and experiences of mothers and daughters.
This is must-read stuff for women with mothers and women with daughters. It’s also illuminating for men who love women and have the chance to help them cope with the frustrations of trying to communicate with their mothers and/or daughters.
And I’ll bet that a good number of men reading this column are already planning to add this book to their list of gifts to give their wife … and their daughters!
I rarely review books I haven’t read, but in this case I’m truly not in the target audience for Cindy Woodsmall’s Sisters of the Quilt trilogy: When the Heart Cries, When the Morning Comes and When the Soul Mends. I’m passing along the views and judgments of some of the readers I trust most in the world, since they vet my books before I turn them in to my publisher.
My wife read the first volume because of a positive review, and has since passed them along to several friends. They all agree that they are “light” reading – that is, you don’t have to have an MA in literature to appreciate them. As one friend said, “Sometimes light reading is exactly what you want.”
These books fall into a literary sub-genre called “Amish romance.” They show up, not in the romance section of the bookstore, but under Christian or religious fiction.
And here’s why: The romance genre has become a branch of pornography, to put it bluntly. Yet the obligatory sex scenes cheapen and often destroy the genuine romances, so that many women readers are now repulsed by the physical lust that dominates romance writing. Especially historical romance, where the heroines all behave in ways that would destroy them socially – or tag them as members of much lower social orders than they were born into.
In an Amish romance, on the other hand, ain’t nobody even gonna kiss nobody else, let alone hump like bunnies whenever they’re alone in the barn.
Not all Amish romances are created equal. It’s not the absence of sex that makes Woodsmall’s Sisters of the Quilt such a pleasure to read. Woodsmall is a good writer, and her characters are well drawn, the relationships worth caring about, the plots surprisingly inventive.
So along with You’re Wearing That?, gentlemen, you may wish to toss these three books by Woodsmall – or at least the first volume, When the Heart Cries – under the tree with your wife’s or daughter’s name on the tag.
Gnam Gnam, Greensboro’s world-class gelato shop on Lawndale, a few doors away from Fresh Market, is celebrating the first anniversary of its opening. On Dec. 3, 4 and 5, they’ll be selling two scoops for a buck, and $25 gift cards for 20 bucks. Not to mention $2 off any salad or panini.
In other words, they’re practically giving away some of the best food and treats in Greensboro. This is the place I take visitors who have been to Europe and know what gelato (or glace) is supposed to taste like – and they are all astonished to find that it is as good as the very best Europe has to offer.
So if you haven’t tried Gnam Gnam yet, why not do it this weekend, when it’s very nearly free?
Many of you may be familiar with the Zagat series of restaurant guides for major metropolitan areas. If you don’t often go to New York or DC or LA or Seattle or Boston, you might not have run into them. The concept is to collect the reviews of people who dine out regularly and then average their ratings to come up with a score that generally ranges between 10 and 25, 10 being pretty dreadful and 25 being food so good you could cry.
Not every metro area uses the same standards. A Dallas-Ft. Worth 25 might only get an 18 in New York or LA or a 21 in San Francisco or Boston. What matters is the comparison among restaurants by people who regularly dine out in that city.
I’ve been using Zagat guides for years to find good restaurants in unfamiliar cities – or new restaurants in towns where I’ve often dined out but now am looking for a change. I also submit reviews in major cities where I eat out and try new restaurants often enough to be able to make comparisons: LA, New York, Orange County and DC.
(There would be little point in publishing a Zagat guide to Greensboro restaurants – or even to North Carolina restaurants. Each city in NC is too small, with too few restaurants, so that even though I personally rate several Greensboro restaurants as being good enough to compete in major metro areas, I couldn’t tell you diddly about how restaurants in Raleigh or Asheville or Charlotte or Winston compare with ours, because I never go there to dine. I daresay most Zagat reviewers would be the same, so the comparisons would be meaningless.)
Zagat also publishes nightlife guides, but as a non-drinking Mormon, “nightlife” is a meaningless term when it doesn’t apply to bats, owls, mosquitos or chirping crickets.
However, Zagat has come up with a new concept: Zagat’s guide to The World’s Best Movies. It uses the Zagat system – ratings by scads of volunteers, which are then mathematically massaged (the ratings, not the volunteers) to result in scores ranging up to 30.
The book is the size of a standard Zagat guide, so that it’s obvious they couldn’t list every movie that anybody ever liked. They have several grave omissions – for instance, they skip from The Green Mile to the sappy, dated Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner without leaving room for the classic comedy Groundhog Day.
By and large, though, most people’s top 100 movies list will be well-represented in this book, even if some favorites, especially the obscure ones, are left out.
Oddly enough, Zagat guides seem to be exactly the right size to stuff into a Christmas stocking. And this one will be pleasing to anyone who cares about the movies, no matter where in America or Canada they live.
Not only will the guide give you plenty to argue about with your friends or family, it might also alert you to movies that you have forgotten about or never heard of.
For instance, here’s a sample Zagat review of the classic comedy The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray:
“Sex in the big, bad city” has never been as “realistic” or “touching” as in this “sad-edged romance,” recounting the exploits of a “hapless” “junior exec in love with his boss’ mistress”; it pits a “baby-faced” Lemmon opposte a “tender” MacLaine, and besides being “very amusing,” it’s also a “powerful social comment masquerading as comedy.”
The quotations are excerpted from the comments of the stable of Zagat reviewers – they’re what regular smart people said about it.
The ratings? An overall score of 25, with a 28 for acting, 25 for story, and 23 for production values.
Now, I personally rate The Apartment far higher than the pretentious and tedious Apocalypse Now (the next review in the book), which got 27, 27, 25 and 28. But that’s a matter of personal taste. The point is that they’re both movies that are part of the public conversation in our culture.
I had almost forgotten about The Apartment, I saw it so many years ago. But, reminded of it, I sat down with my family over the Thanksgiving holidays and watched our DVD of it … and it was better than ever.
That’s what this book is for, in my opinion – to remind us of great movies of the past, so we can stay home and watch them instead of the miserable fare that we are usually offered in the theaters today.
On this day in 1823, President James Monroe, in his annual message to Congress, announced the foreign policy later called the “Monroe Doctrine:” “In the wars of the European powers in matters relating to themselves, we have never taken any part. … We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety.”
This was not an offer of protection to other countries in the Western Hemisphere; nor was it a promise that we would not meddle in the affairs of other American nations. Monroe’s policy was not altruistic. Rather he was saying that from now on America considered it to be in our vital interest that European powers not enlarge any of their holdings in the Americas.
Since Spain, Portugal, France, England, Russia and the Netherlands all had colonies in the Americas, and only the United States, Mexico and Haiti were independent, for some time the Monroe Doctrine was moot. And when it was violated in 1862 by the French attempt to take over Mexico, we had enough troubles on our own plate (the Civil War) that we couldn’t do much about it.
In effect, the Monroe Doctrine told the major powers that the entire Western Hemisphere was our sphere of influence! It was an outrageous thing for our then-fledgling nation to declare. And when we finally had the power to enforce it, we abused our hegemony.
We did not treat any of our newly independent neighbors as truly sovereign. If we didn’t like their government, we changed it. We had no commitment to democracy – we toppled elected leaders and installed puppet dictators. Every nation in the Western Hemisphere – especially in Central America and the Caribbean – conducted all their affairs while looking over their shoulder at the giant dozing to the north. If they did something that woke us up, they knew we could and would come in and wreck everything.
For instance, when Colombia refused to cede us the land to build a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific, we sponsored a revolution that ended up with Panama winning its independence from Colombia – but not from us! And we got our canal.
Memories are long and resentments linger. We should not be surprised that anti-Americanism is a pretty effective way for clowns like Chavez in Venezuela to win and maintain public support.
Getting the hair off men’s faces is big business – except, of course, where the Taliban rules. In the old days, men’s faces were scraped with razors – in effect, very sharp knives. They needed constant sharpening in order to avoid snagging and cutting the skin.
The same tool that shaved a man could just as easily slit his throat – barbers had to be trusted. And shaving yourself required precision and focus; the slightest slip and you could find yourself bleeding copiously from a deep cut.
Several people had tried to develop “safety razors” – razors with a guard that would prevent accidental cuts from being deep and severe. But a workable, affordable solution was not found until a man with the weird name of King Camp Gillette tackled the problem. (One has to wonder what kind of parents name their child “King” – or, for that matter, “Camp.”)
Gillette was working as a salesman for the Crown Cork and Seal Company in the 1890s. They sold caps to bottlers. Their product was designed to be used once (to seal a bottle of soda pop) and then discarded. Gillette realized: If you developed a safety razor with a cheap blade you could use a few times and then throw away, people would have to keep buying the blades. You could make a lot of money.
It took a long time to develop a process for stamping the blades, giving them a sharp edge, and doing it so cheaply that people could afford to throw them away. Even so, the razor cost five bucks – the equivalent of half a week’s wages – and the blades were nowhere near as cheap as they are now.
But it meant the end of slicing yourself to ribbons – or having to visit a barber and pay him every single day. There were still accidents – but they were nicks, not wounds.
The original Gillette Safety Razor appeared in 1903, when he sold 51 razors and 168 blades. But the next year he sold 90,884 razors and 123,648 blades; by 1915, they were selling 450,000 razors and 70 million blades a year.
You’d think Gillette would be the quintessential capitalist, but no. He was a utopian socialist who believed all corporations should be taken over by a single company owned by the people as a whole.
The annual Black Nativity opens today at the Harrison Auditorium at North Carolina A&T State University. It runs Dec. 2 through Dec. 5 at 8 p.m., with 3 o’clock matinees on Dec. 4 and Dec. 5. It’s one of the great holiday traditions of Greensboro, full of history; it’s also a great show. For information and tickets, call 334-7749.
Friday, Dec. 3 – Heart Transplant Day
The first heart transplant in human history took place on this day in 1967. Dr. Christiaan Barnard, a South African surgeon, performed the operation at Cape Town, South Africa. Barnard, a minister’s son, had a mission: His brother Abraham had died of a heart problem at the age of 5. It was while he did advanced medical research in the United States that he learned of the work of transplant pioneer Norman Shumway; he took that knowledge back to South Africa, where he earned a reputation as a brilliant heart surgeon.
Barnard worked for years practicing heart transplants on dogs, so that he acquired the skill and knowledge to enable him to conduct the same operation on humans. Those who decry medical experimentation on animals would have made any human transplant operation impossible; in a world where we routinely slaughter animals for food, it seems absurd to ban medical research that takes far fewer animal lives and might lead to saving many humans.
Even with all the practice on animals, it was still difficult to overcome the body’s natural process of rejecting foreign body parts. The first transplant patient, Louis Washkansky, who had incurable heart disease, lived for only 18 days after the operation – he died of pneumonia, to which his body was made susceptible by the drugs that were used to suppress immune responses. His new heart had come from Denise Darvall, who died when she was hit by a car while crossing a street. The next transplant recipient lived for 19 months.
Despite apartheid in South Africa, it was not a whites-only operation. Dorothy Fisher was the first black recipient, in 1969; she lived 12-and-a-half years with her new heart. Still, the operation did not become common until ciclosporin was devised, making the survival rate and duration high enough to become a good option.
A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway in 1947. Tennessee Williams’ drama opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre with Jessica Tandy as Blanche Du Bois and mumbling newcomer Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. Williams had already become a star playwright with Glass Menagerie. Streetcar ran for two years and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Tandy won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.
Brando’s performance, using “the Method,” an attempt to be “natural,” spawned a host of imitators, and “the Method” continues to keep most American actors from ever attaining the level of skill routinely achieved by British actors.
The annual Festival of Lights will be held in downtown Greensboro tonight, from 5:45 to 9 p.m. Musical groups will perform along South Elm Street, and shops will stay open late. At 7:30 p.m. the community tree will be lighted at Center City Park.
Saturday, Dec. 4 – Earmuff Day
Chester Greenwood (1858-1937) was 15 years old in Farmington, Maine, when he came up with the idea of earmuffs and had his grandmother sew tufts of fur between loops of wire. Manufacturing earmuffs provided jobs for people in the Farmington area for nearly 60 years. The first Saturday in December every year, Farmington holds a parade in Greenwood’s honor.
Nowadays, most people use some kind of hat they can pull down or hood they can pull up to protect their ears from bitter cold weather, and earmuffs can be hard to find in semi-warm climates like ours. But I proudly own and wear earmuffs, because they don’t leave you with hat-hair when you go indoors and take them off.
In downtown Greensboro, the annual Jaycees Holiday Parade starts at noon. The parade route goes south on Green Street, turns on East Market and finishes on Church Street at the Children’s Museum. Opinions are evenly divided as to whether we want it to snow that day, but only because it never snows on Dec. 4 in Greensboro so we’ve never experienced how miserable it can be to watch or take part in parades in the snow.
Sunday, Dec. 5 – Disney Day
Walt Disney was born on this day in 1901. Despite all the rumors, after his death his body was not frozen and hidden away under the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, in hopes of reviving him later.
The truth is Disney died of lung cancer in December 1966, and was cremated. There is plenty of documentation affirming that this did indeed take place.
Meanwhile, his legacy lives on, despite the ups and downs in the quality of animated films bearing the Disney name. This year, the 50th animated Disney film, Tangled, may well be the best of them all.
The 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified on this day in 1933, when a Utah constitutional convention, disregarding the pleas of the Mormon Church, passed the crucial vote making the amendment take effect.
Actually, the 21st Amendment did not ban Prohibition, it simply ended the federal requirement. States were still allowed to stay “dry” if they wanted to. Mississippi – which had banned the sale of alcoholic beverages in 1907 – became the last state to repeal Prohibition in 1966, and there are many “dry” counties and towns remaining in the US.
Many people claim that the 18th Amendment was a failure and that Prohibition was a terrible idea. But in fact the drinking habits of Americans changed radically during that time, and even after repeal, the incidence of public drunkenness and drunken abuse of spouses and children was much reduced.
It isn’t so much that Prohibition failed as that a significant number of people – including many public officials – simply refused to obey the law, making it nearly impossible to enforce.
Those who argue that our vile immigration laws must be enforced before they can be changed and made decent and manageable should remember that when you have a law that isn’t working, the simplest solution is sometimes to get rid of it and replace it with laws that can be enforced and obeyed.
Monday, Dec. 6 – Vice Presidents Day
Gerald Ford was sworn in as America’s first non-elected vice president on this day in 1973. Following Spiro Agnew’s resignation as he pled “no contest” to a charge of income tax evasion, President Richard Nixon appointed Ford, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, to replace him, under the provisions of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution.
Previously, when vice presidents died in office, or when they succeeded to the presidency upon the death of the president, the office of vice president remained vacant until the next election. The 25th Amendment created a process whereby the president can nominate someone to fill the office of vice president and Congress then ratifies (or doesn’t!) his nominee.
When Ford succeeded to the presidency after Nixon’s resignation, he then nominated Nelson Rockefeller, who became the second (and, so far, the last) vice president to serve without having been elected.
Tuesday, Dec. 7 – Pearl Harbor Day
On this day in 1941, nearly 200 Japanese carrier-launched aircraft (as well as several submarines) attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, near Honolulu, Hawaii. The raid, which lasted little more than one hour, left nearly 3,000 dead.
Nearly the entire fleet was at anchor there, and few ships escaped damage. Several were sunk or disabled, while 200 US aircraft on the ground were destroyed. Many of these losses were avoidable – radar detected the incoming Japanese planes in plenty of time to get our own fighters aloft to contest the battle. But, unfamiliar with radar and without any system of communications in place, word of the approaching planes was disregarded until too late.
The attack at Pearl Harbor brought about immediate US entry into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war, a mere formality – Congress, which has the sole power to declare war, would have done so with or without his request.
America’s war, however, was only with Japan; Roosevelt would not have had much support for a declaration of war against Germany. Fortunately for Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Hitler stupidly decided that his treaty with Japan was the one treaty he would actually keep, and he declared war on the US shortly afterward.
American entry into the war allowed the US to openly supply and bankroll both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union in their resistance to Hitler, keeping the fight going against Germany’s economic and military juggernaut.
Even though American outrage over Pearl Harbor was what spurred us to overcome our isolationism and go to war, Roosevelt decided, in conjunction with Britain and Russia, that defeating Hitler was the more important priority, and the war with Japan was essentially placed on the back burner until we had men and materiel to spare.
Wednesday, Dec. 8 – Soviet Disunion Day
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was dissolved on this day in 1991, putting Gorbachev and the rest of the Soviet government out of work. The republics of Russia, Byelorussia (now Belarus) and Ukraine signed an agreement at Minsk creating the Commonwealth of Independent States, a toothless replacement for the Soviet system.
The whole USSR had always been a sham – it was the Russian empire under another name. Moscow exercised far tighter control over the supposed “republics” than the US government does over the states. Ironically, however, many of the soviet socialist republics had been allowed separate representation in the United Nations, despite their complete lack of independence in foreign policy.
Dissolving the USSR did not necessarily bring democracy or even the end of communism. Dictators still rule in many of the successor states, and Russia still bullies its neighbors, especially Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Ukraine, which are in constant danger from Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ambition to reestablish the old Russian empire.
Remember, tomorrow, Dec. 9, is the day of the Greensboro Oratorio Society’s 57th annual live performance of Handel’s Messiah at 7 p.m. at War Memorial Auditorium. There are no tickets and admission is free, though donations are gratefully accepted. If you can afford it, think of $5 or $10 per person as a solid contribution to defray the expenses; but you are welcome even if you can’t contribute a dime.