STRiP NUDE FOR YOUR SANTA:
WHEN CHRiSTMAS INTERRUPTS NON-CHRiSTMAS MOViES part 2
Christmas is insistent in our culture: it stubbornly arrives every year at the same time, claiming an entire month and even a few extra days throughout the year. The same is true of movies: several films that otherwise have nothing to do with the birth of baby Jesus or the true meaning of the season have been subjected to surprising Christmas cameos, even when they're not particularly welcome. As with our previous list Eating Potato Jesus, this isn't an attempt to add to the ever-expanding canon of unexpectedly Christmas-y horror flicks, action blockbusters and films noir, but a look at the moments when Christmas pops up in random movies that are low on snow, sleighs and candy canes.
Last year's "Potato" contributers John Cribbs and Marcus Pinn are joined by guests Leanne Kubicz, the voice of LMK Film Picks and founder/president of 1898 House, and Kevin Maher, creator and star of monthly variety show Kevin Geeks Out, to share some memorable instances of Christmas making brief appearances in non-holiday features.
john huston, 1972.
"You're the only son of a bitch worth a shit in this place."
"I appreciate that."
Don't look for Christmas anywhere in the opening helicopter shot of dusty Stockton, California. Don't search for it in Stacy Keach's tighty whites. You won't find it in the sterile halls of the apartment building or the barren boxing gym, or out in the potato fields. It's not in the fingers of Kris Kristofferson as he plucks away at the strings of acoustic opening credits number "Help Me Make It Through the Night" (later retooled by Willie Nelson as "Little Dealer Boy," a festive novelty song about pot smoking, for A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!) And you sure won't find Christmas at the bottom of the bottle, but that's the only place the sad occupants of John Huston's Fat City are headed. Seriously: blink at the wrong spot and you will miss Christmas entirely in this movie.*
Not that Keach's washed-up boxer Billy Tully or Susan Tyrrell's sulking lush Oma Lee Greer are searching for it. Whether he realizes it or not, what Billy tends to seek out is misery, tender oblivion, and he finds it at the far end of the local watering hole, hunched over knocking back sherries like a dazed redheaded turtle that's woken up without its shell. Oma's surliness and tendency to lash out at anyone for any imagined reason is a booze-infused defense against the possibility of happiness, her contradictory determination and self-pity perfectly mingled in the slurred profession, "I believe everybody has a right to live his own life, so screw everybody!" She defends her jailed boyfriend as wrongfully-prosecuted and "peaceable", then turns around and reveals that he raped her ("I've never been ashamed by the act of love!") As belligerently as she rails against the world's injustice from a bar stool, Oma seems conditioned towards a hardened resolve to accept without resistance her horrible lot in life. Her forced smile, which can only be described as the most adorable spirit-shattering expression of bored seduction ever photographed - a facsimile of a smile - is presented to Billy, a clear loser who she has to realize is the worst possible match for her.
Still, Billy gets Oma's "look of love", to borrow the title of the Dusty Springfield tune that underscores his graceless saunter towards her corner (recycled from Casino Royale, for which Huston directed a sequence). On his way over, he's temporarily waylaid by the sole Christmas decoration on display in the dive bar: a dangling ad for Coca-Cola with a grinning Santa atop the curious jingle, "Are you un-prepared?" For some reason, this easily-navigable obstruction proves more of a obstacle for Billy than one might expect: he shifts from one side to the next before giving the clock-blocking banner a concentrated jab like he's hitting a speed bag (incidentally, "You will be unprepared" was the less-ambiguous tagline for Sucker Punch). The cheerful mirth promised by a dimpled Santa and a soft drink? He has absolutely no use for it, slugging it derisively to the side in favor of pursuing a downswing existence with someone whose desire for respect and prosperity is equally superficial. Never one to make a play for a title, Billy the boxer, whose idea of a romantic gesture is to smash his head on a jukebox, is content with small victories and little nothings that add up to exactly zilch. (Meanwhile on the road, a bloody pair of shared sparing shorts ends up being the Christmas gift that keeps on giving for young southpaw Ernie Munger and his fellow fighters.)
Won over by Billy's empty assurance that "you can count on me" (Kenneth Lonergan a fan of this scene?), Oma allows him to escourt her out of the dive into the daylight of the Stockton sidewalk. Quite unexpectedly, she is suddenly flooded with emotion and starts to cry before blurting out "I love you!" to the man she's known for a grand total of five minutes. Barely perceptible in the background, you can see that someone has chalked a "Merry Christmas" message on the wall of the bar, an underwhelming sentiment unseen by the new couple, as fleeting and devoid of any real sentiment as Oma's declaration of love. But they both look really happy in that one moment together. Un-prepared, and proud of it.
~ john cribbs
* Christmas may very well not exist at all in the pan-and-scan VHS copy of Fat City, I'd be curious to check on that.
THE LOVERS ON THE BRIDGE
leos carax, 1991.
lars von trier, 1991.
The Lovers on the Bridge is a rarity in that it's one of the few Leos Carax films that doesn't end with some kind of tragic event. Our female protagonist/love interest in Boy Meets Girl commits suicide in the end, our male protagonist dies at the end of Bad Blood, and Pola X ends with Pierre blowing a guys brains out before being ushered off to jail probably for the rest of his life. But The Lovers on the Bridge is different. The guy actually gets the girl (after losing her at first). Sure Alex & Michele will probably end up homeless but at least they'll be together. And isn't that kind of the point of Carax's misunderstood film that was both a critical & financial failure upon its initial release? The Lovers on the Bridge is a two hour long exploration in to how (some) dysfunctional relationships last. Although I use the term; "last" very liberally because, like I already said, they'll probably end up on the street which doesn't equate a long life. They also both suffer from mental illness and alcohol addiction so that almost guarantees they won't have an easy life.
But I think we forget all these major details because The Lovers on the Bridge ends with a backdrop of a snowy French winter wonderland so subconsciously we think we're getting a happy ending. I don't know about you all but the Christmas ambiance of white snow, bright colors, mindlessly happy children & sleigh bells brings about a happier vibe in me. And I don't even like Christmas all that much anymore so imagine someone with a more positive outlook on the holiday season watching the final sequence of The Lovers on the Bridge where our two title lovers are reunited on/or around December 25th. What's more romantic than a young rosy-cheeked Juliette Binoche playing in the snow with the lovable Denis Lavant on Christmas?
The only problem is that if you really think about the logistics they'll more than likely freeze to death before winter is over. Winter in Paris isn't as brutal as winter in parts of Canada or Maine but it is when you live on the street like Alex & Michele.
Imagine coming across the dead frozen bodies of two young lovers On Christmas morning. Not only would your holidays be ruined but you'd be scarred for life and Christmas would forever be associated with death.
That's an interrupted Christmas.
The Lovers on the Bridge wasn't the only film to ruin/interrupt Christmas in 1991. The same year Lovers made the festival circuit was also the same year we got Lars Von Trier's third feature film; Europa which also casually grazed over/casually mentions Christmas (Lovers & Europa both played some of the same festivals in '91). Instead of inevitable dead homeless bodies like The Lovers On The Bridge, Lars Von Trier mixed Christmastime with nazis, suicide & a terrorist attack. Would you expect anything less from a depressed provocateur like Lars?
While Christmas is only part of a brief montage in the middle of Europa, it's still a critical moment because we see our main character marry the women he thinks is the love of his life but really turns out to be a nazi spy.
~ marcus pinn
michael Powell / emeric pressburger, 1947.
A Christmas scene in a movie about nuns might not seen like such an oddity, but it does in this particular movie about nuns. Tasked with running a school/hospital from a mountaintop palace in the Himalayas, a ragtag squad of sisters find their mental health susceptible to the new environment. The vertiginous effects of the high altitude take a toll on the hard-working abbesses of the House of St. Faith, ultimately resulting in resentment, obsession, infanticide, sexual hysteria and attempted murder. Also a wanton sequence of unrestrained Christmas worship.
The night of Christmas Eve, the sisters take a break from the pressures of dealing with cultural differences between them and the untrusting locals by coming together in a tiny room for Midnight Mass. Seeking comfort in the semblance of a chapel, each member of the order tries to lose herself in seasonal hymns only to find the sanctity of the service rife with growing sexual tension. Most palpable is the stirring Sister Ruth feels towards irreverent, short pants-enthusiast Mr. Dean. Dean shows up drunk in the company of the inquiring Young General, who for his part finds it hard to ignore the advances of sensual peasant girl Kanchi (an unfortunate Jean Simmons in brown face). Even the steely Sister Clodagh finds herself transported back to a time before she took her vows as they break into the spirited psalm "Lullay My Liking", which reminds her of a holiday night of caroling when a handsome suitor gifted her a flashy piece of jewelry. Something tells me there's more to that little grin she allows herself than chaste religious fulfillment.
I doubt Michael Powell would have accused me of misinterpreting this seemingly innocuous scene of holiday celebration, based on his claim that in Black Narcissus "eroticism is in every frame and image, from the beginning to the end." For one thing, no matter how many candles they light and bible verses they recite, it's impossible to pass out of mind that this palace ostensibly used to be a brothel. In a film about the secularism of the material world inevitably exceeding the imposture of pietism, this is possibly the most important scene. It's here that Sister Clodagh, so desperate to suppress the emotions of her past and the reality of her surroundings, is for the first time humbled into acknowledging her very human yearnings and limitations. "Jesus Christ was a man," the Young General rightly points out. Of course, Sister Clodagh feels the need to refine the uncluttered observation: "He took the shape of a man..." She can't help but separate the earthly from the spiritual, even though deep down she knows a picturesque Christmas with budding romance and glittering gifts is preferable to hiding out in an austere chamber trying to pretend that everybody wouldn't rather be fucking.
Black Narcissus is almost an anti-Charlie Brown Christmas: it makes a case for the materialistic side of the holiday rather than the holy. The true meaning of Christmas for Sister Clodagh is to accept her own fascination with the heathen Mr. Dean and ease up on the ascetic demands that eventually send Sister Ruth into a fever-pitched fury. She and her fellow nuns can no more contain their collective sensuality in the confining space of the church than they can stiffle it in the expanse of land from their lofty vantage point outside those walls. She can't hide the mountain.
~ john cribbs
STUART SAVE HIS FAMiLY
harold ramis, 1995.
Holidays, the movies tell us, are about family.
And one of my favorite stories about families is Stuart Saves His Family.
The 1995 comedy is not your typical Saturday Night Live movie (Stuart was released between It's Pat and A Night at the Roxbury). Al Franken set out to make his comedic alter-ego a multidimensional character, with a story that's funny and serious.
Like the book it's based on, the film follows a year in the life of Stuart Smalley, a proud member of several 12-step groups (including Adult Children of Alcoholics, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous and Al-Anon).
The film's episodic events show Stuart navigating one crisis after another, including a funeral, a termination, a lawsuit, an accidental shooting and more than a few emotional confrontations.
Along the way he struggles to restore his sanity AND desperately tries to rescue his family from their own worst behaviors. Stuart gets involved while his parents and siblings carry out a cycle of resentments, anger, co-dependency and other by-products of an Alcoholic family. (In one of my favorite scenes a fistfight breaks out at a funeral and Stuart tells a policeman, "You see Officer, this is really about Alcoholism...") The movie is laugh-out-loud funny. (If you don't think so, ask someone who’s in recovery. We find this movie hilarious!) It's also an effective drama. In the third act, Stuart finds the courage to distance himself from his dysfunctional family. By the film's end, Stuart decides that for the first time in his life, he won't go home for Christmas. (This bold choice is sure to resonate with viewers in the 2016 election year.)
Stuart opts to get on with his life and spend the holiday with friends. He jokes that "Alcoholism is a three-fold disease: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's." But the sadness that accompanies Christmas is not overlooked.
The serious subtext works thanks to the stellar cast.* Director Harold Ramis populates the Smalley family with dramatic actors, including Harris Yulin as Dad, Shirley Knight as Mom and Vincent D'Onofrio as Stuart's pot-smoking brother Donnie.
Casting is key because the film is a dramatic comedy, maybe even a comedic drama. The film's tagline is on-the-nose: "You'll laugh because it's not your family. You'll cry because it is." This holiday season consider laugh-crying with Stuart; the film is streaming on Amazon Prime.
~ kevin maher
* When John Landis was casting National Lampoon's Animal House (co-written by Harold Ramis) the studio was opposed to his choice of dramatic actors as the authority figures. They wanted comedy stars, even suggesting Dom DeLuise to play the sinister Mayor Carmine DePasto. Landis fought for his straight actors in comedic parts, a casting victory that’s had a ripple effect on modern comedies.
WHY DOES HERR R. RUN AMOK?
rainer werner fassbinder / michael fengler, 1970.
"I'm always afraid when he's at our place over Christmas."
"What do you think about Christmas without a Christmas tree?" was one question posed by a grade-school class questionnaire to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His answer was characteristically inimical: "People who have been brought up so hypocritically that they need such symbols should just be left alone until we have a society where such things aren't necessary anymore." This response explains why, in any of RWF's 40 feature films, TV movies and mini-series, you'll never see a single Christmas decoration (he even changed a Christmas party in the novel Effi Briest to just a regular party for his adaptation).* Which is probably for the best: it's painful to imagine how crushingly dismal and outraged a Fassbinder Christmas scene would be. Most of his films go down like 190 proof grain alcohol - no need to spike that shit with eggnog.
We do get a little taste of Christmas in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, although I'm not sure it should count since principal directing duties on that project fell to Michael Fengler (Fassbinder's frequent producer and co-director of The Niklashausen Journey). Another good move, as I doubt Fassbinder could have ever made something so boring. Not on purpose, anyway. Herr R. is the most fascinatingly tedious 80 minutes one could ever hope to spend staring at a screen, practically one long take of Kurt Raab's eponymous pushover staring at the floor as the people around him - empty vessels remotely connected as family, friends, co-workers - exchange increasingly insufferable banalities. From "How's your conjunctivitis?" to extended talk of birdhouses, mean-spirited gossip to deadly dull conversations about architecture that would probably put Marcus Pinn to sleep, the audience is forced to experience every second of banality and belittling to which Raab is subjected; before long the question isn't so much "Why does Herr R. run amok?" as "What's taking him so long??"
Particularly torturous is a pair of scenes in which Kurt's parents pay a visit during the holidays. The dad seems harmless enough hanging out in the background, but Kurt's wife is subjected to 10 straight minutes of unsolicited scrutiny by his portly mother. An emasculated Kurt can only watch helplessly as she digs into poor Frau R., first with thoughtless little jibes ("You're spoiled, it's clear you were an only child") and finally outright shaming her for not paying attention after son Amadeus sneaks off and hides during a walk in the snow (prompting one of the movie's funniest lines: "Make sure he doesn't climb a tree!") The old-fashioned elder frau is relentless with her tiny suggestions, including that Kurt's wife take a temporary job in order to buy him a Christmas present: "It would be better if you paid for your own surprises." Horror tales of mothers-in-law muscling their way into the holiday home to enforce their own traditions aren't rare, but in a film where every character ingratiates himself insistently under the skin of Herr R., his mother's incessant chiding is a mighty stick of dynamite in his deteriorating psyche.
Further reticent tumult is nurtured during a parent-teacher conference attended by the R.'s in which a nativity scene sits behind the heads of the two parents: the spectre of the Perfect Child in stark contrast to the report Kurt and his wife are hearing of their flawed one. If Herr R.'s ultimate act of familicide is less a case of a violent crack-up than a resolute resignation from life, his close-up in this scene suggests a man looking to Christmas Future and seeing only derision and failure for his pogeny, in a society represented by disapproving moms and disobliging schoolteachers. Rather than delivering a child unto the world, Herr R. resolves to take one away. Bleak, but a classic case of a frustrated Fassbinder wimp taking his intolerance out on the wrong people.
~ john cribbs
* This is particularly pointed when you consider how reverently Fassbinder admired Douglas Sirk, who included a scenic Christmas backdrop in one of his best movies, All That Heaven Allows, and his final film, Imitation of Life. (Fellow Sirk devotee Todd Haynes was happy to bring in the holidays for his Sirkiest melodramas, Far from Heaven and Carol.)
greg araki, 2004.
Mysterious Skin was a turning point for Gregg Araki. I don't mean to insult the man but maturity wasn't the first word that came to mind when I thought of him or his work prior to the release what's probably the best thing he's ever done. Provocative, transgressive & button pushing are the key phrases that best describe him but not mature. And in my opinion you need to be mature in order to correctly handle/show respect to issues concerning child abuse & sexual trauma which is what Mysterious Skin is about. That's not to say Araki's post-2004 movies are bad, because they aren't (well... not all of them), but prior to seeing Mysterious Skin, I honestly cringed at the thought of the director of Doom Generation taking on an issue like child abuse. But Araki hit a home-run with Mysterious Skin all while toying with the audience.
What I mean by toying is that all throughout the film there was a subplot concerning aliens & UFOs. But what do aliens have to do with child abuse & repressed memories? Given Araki's track record prior to Mysterious Skin it was very plausible that aliens could have shown up at turned the movie into something else. Instead, he took a typically seeming Araki trope and used it for something unexpected (for those of you that haven't seen Mysterious Skin, the alien/UFO fascination was a symbol for Brady Corbet's repressed memories after being sexually assaulted as a child).
What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Well... one of the most memorable shots in the movie takes place during Christmas. After being sexually assaulted by a sadistic John we see a bloody coat-less Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) riding the subway in the dead of winter cold & alone. Issues like sexual abuse & rape will certainly kill the Christmas spirit.
~ marcus pinn
akira kurosawa, 1950.
"It's Christmas, let's have turkey."
Writing for last year's list, Chris Funderburg wondered whether the Japanese observed Christmas. The answer is that Christmas is a secular but very popular holiday in Japan, celebrated as fervently as it is in the West (no word on how Annual Gift Man works into the festivities). As such, Japanese filmmakers are just as likely to over-sentimentalize the holidays, even the very greatest Japanese filmmaker. And Christmas has maybe never interrupted a largely non-Christmas movie quite as aggressively as when Akira Kurosawa abruptly cuts to Toshiro Mifune tooling around town on a motorbike with a giant, fully-decorated Christmas tree hanging off the back as "Jingle Bells" blares from the soundtrack in the middle of Kurosawa's slight 1950 melodrama Scandal. (Who is truly scandalized? The audience!)
It's sad but true: coming off the masterful Stray Dog, Kurosawa stumbled somewhat on his path to cinematic immortality with this flawed Capra-esque melodrama involving a couple of sweet-natured rich people (Mifune and House of Bamboo's Shirley Yamaguchi) whose reputations are tarnished by a powerful muckraking rag. Their unimpeccable goodness is pitted against the newspaper owner's sneering comic book vileness (for all intents and purposes he's the Scrooge of the piece, even rejecting a cherrily-offered holiday pamphlet on the street), the film's moral convictions as clearly defined as the veracity of truth was ambiguous in Rashomon (released the same year). Just in case the deck wasn't fully loaded Kurosawa adds Masako, a nobly suffering young woman whose virtue further tarnishes the very hissable villain. Now I don't agree with a lot of the criticisms aimed at Kurosawa over the years, but he was asking for it with this character, whose mere presence is sappier than the infamous climax of his post-war film One Wonderful Sunday, in which the fiancee implores those watching to join in conducting the imaginary orchestra in the empty amphitheater. She makes the cheesiest aspects of Dodes'ka-den seem nuanced.
It's impossible to detach the saccharinely Masako from the Christmas segment of Scandal, since the other characters rally to fawn over the sick girl and give her a magical holiday. Mifune turns full-blown Santa (even identifying himself as such to a gang of slum kids) and quite literally brings Christmas to the shack: giant tree, silver garlands, the Drunken Angel himself harmonizing on organ as Yamaguchi sings "Silent Night" (which, to be fair, sounds pretty even in Japanese) and the ill-fated Masako sitting with a paper crown on her head and stupid grin on her face, glancing around in awe at all the shiny decorations. Plug a Hallmark commercial into the middle of all this and Scandal transforms into an official Christmas courtroom drama, the perfect double feature with Miracle on 34th Street or that episode of Night Court where Roz refuses to return the toys belonging to the Grinchy factory owner that Bull accidentally handed out to charity kids.
Fortunately Kurosawa is able to salvage the film somewhat by focusing on a less-than-merry character, Takashi Shimura's alcoholic lawyer. Like the losers of Fat City, Shimura is the author of his own failure in both his professional career (he's accepted a bribe to betray clients Mifune and Yamaguchi) and his performance as a father to Saint Masako. Although this character is responsible for abducting the narrative and dragging it into sappy territory, he's still Shimura and therefore quite watchable. Already tinged with guilt over selling out to the evil tabloid editor so he can afford nice things for his daughter, a dispondent Shimura sees all this holiday cheer the people he's betraying have brought into his miserable home out of the kindness of their hearts and it practically destroys him. He flees this holiday treacle and ends up getting toasted with Mifune in a seedy bar (in a role reversal, Shimura is the wreck and Mifune the wary onlooker). This results in the two men lurching back to the ghetto and sharing an actual magical moment in which an astonished Mifune observes, "Look! It's a miracle! Stars have fallen into that filthy pond! Glittering stars in the midst of this filthy town!" Now that's the kind of enchanted Christmas I expect from my Kurosawa.
~ john cribbs
NYMPHOMANiAC Vol. I & II
lars von trier, 2013.
The majority of Lars von Trier's five-and-a-half hour magnum opus is bathed in drab whitewash. The elegance of the camera movement and the graceful edits are contrasted with stark interiors and equally glum costuming. Charlotte Gainsbourg's Joe recounting her lusty life story to the Good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) is decidedly not picturesquely-sensual, despite an expectation by the audience for scenes of sexy sexcapades. Even the inclusion of Christmas is a complete repudiation of the traditional meaning of the holiday that could only be presented by the deft hands of the Danish director.
When Christmas appears, Joe is at a crossroads in her familial life. Joe and Jerome (Shia LeBeouf), her first true love, live a somewhat normal domestic life with their toddler son. "Somewhat" is the operative word, since Jerome has made an arrangement with Joe to have an open relationship. Jerome feels that Joe's sexual appetite is like that of a tiger and he knows he cannot satisfy her constant hunger. His suggestion that she seek outside lovers to help lighten the load is acted upon, yet in time naturally backfires. The idea of an open relationship is very different than living through one, especially for an arrogant man like Jerome. Inevitably Jerome's jealousy hits full force on Christmas as he becomes enraged by Joe's thought of stepping out during the family holiday.
In short course Joe decides to leave in order to meet her sadistic master K. (Jamie Bell) for a ritualistic beating. She rejects her prescribed role as a mother on the very holiday which celebrates the miraculous birth of a savior to a teenage girl. With intent to force guilt, Jerome pushes the baby at a remorseful yet determined Joe and taunts before she exits, "Let's face it Joe, you're not a mother." Joe walks away from her chubby baby being held in Jerome's arms as he desperately yells after her, “It's Christmas! It's fucking Christmas!?!” and towards a new violent future.
We next see Joe barging into her master K.'s office to demand time with him immediately. This is not protocol, as Joe is expected to wait in K.'s stark industrial basement until called upon, between set hours of the day. Joe is only allowed to do what K. wants, he is in control. There is no safe word, K. nicknames her 'Fido', her hair must be worn up in case K. feels he must punch her in the face, no panties allowed, no kissing, no fucking, he can touch her but she is not allowed to touch him. No one can hear Joe scream when she is slapped in the face with a glove full of coins or is strapped to a cracked leather couch and spanked until her skin is bloody and purple.
Joe's breach of etiquette takes K. by surprise, as she forcefully kisses him and tries to get in his pants, which he flatly refuses. Instead he seizes the opportunity to present Joe with a Christmas present, her very own cat o' nine tails! He had previously instructed Joe on how to tie the knots, which comprise the whip, and seems so pleased with the finished product which he presents to her with a cheerful, "Happy Christmas, Fido!" K. proceeds to savagely yet methodically whip Joe, who is restrained, prone on the couch with her ass elevated in the air over a stack of phone books. As the romantic Sonata for Violin and Piano in A-Major by Franck swells and the camera moves to the rear, Joe maneuvers her clitoris on the phone books in such a way as to bring herself to a spiritual-level orgasm in the midst of the unrelenting beating. Von Trier closes Joe's Christmas adventure by having her bid farewell to K., masochism and motherhood, a pointed commentary on the fallacy that home is where the heart is.
~ leanne kubicz
THE DEAD ZONE
david cronenberg, 1983.
philippe mora, 1989.
"Homes just like this."
Some December in the late 80's, I put "Mysteries of the Unknown" at the top of my Christmas list. I'd been intrigued by ads for the series of Time-Life books, with topics that ranged from alien encounters to psychic voyages, which ran on TV and featured irresistible snippets of pre-Unsolved Mysteries dramatizations (my favorite was the man who fashions a wire antenna in the shape of an ancient Egyptian symbol and points it at Stonehenge, only to get zapped! What compelled him to do such a thing in the first place??) I was excited to read all about the Mystical, interpretations of time and space, witches, UFOs, levitating yogis and psychic healers, and I probably wasn't the only one (is there any doubt Chris Carter owned an entire set?) I didn't realize that by putting "Mysteries of the Unknown" on my wish list I was asking my parents to subscribe to numerous volumes, at 16.99 plus shipping & handling a month (with price subject to change), so I shouldn't have been disappointed when the books didn't make it under the tree that year. I was though, a little: other 10-year-olds across America were now learning secrets of the cosmos that would be sealed off from me forever.
I mention this because here are two movies that seem like they could have been ripped from the pages of those uncanny encyclopedias, linked of course by their esoteric leading man, Christopher Walken, and by their common anti-holiday sentiments that some gifts aren't so great and Christmas visitors not always welcome.
In The Dead Zone, Walken's Johnny Smith is still recovering from the physical and emotional trauma of being in a coma for five years as he prepares to spend a quiet Christmas with his recently-widowed father. As the old man struggles with the tree trimming ("Don't have a knack for tinsel..."), Tom Skerritt's Sheriff Bannerman invites himself inside to see if Johnny might be open to utilizing his newfound psychic abilities to help rope the Castle Rock Strangler (Deputy Frank Dodd, later revealed to be the Strangler, remains outside as if knowingly ostracized from the wholesome setting).* "If God has seen fit to bless you with this gift, you should use it," future Cujo chew toy Bannerman rationalizes. Johnny is indignant: "Bless me?? You know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheel truck at me! Bounced me into nowhere for five years! God's been a real sport to me!" It's only then that we realize Johnny's dark mood isn't so incongruous with the festive surroundings: even the modest decorations are doubtlessly a harsh reminder of how he missed out on the last five Christmases with his mother, how he lost a chance to start a family of his own, how the only people interested in visiting for the holidays have their own agenda in exploiting his "special" ability. "No snow..." Johnny laments after Bannerman has left. "It should snow for Christmas."
Cut to: a fresh layer of snow surrounding Johnny's house. (Nice, Cronenberg!) The tree is down, so we assume the holidays are over, but Johnny gets a consolation gift when former flame Brooke Adams turns up to offer a little post-Christmas nookie. Although it's a one-time deal, he gets a taste for what his life might have been and is afterwards inspired to help hunt down the Strangler and later form a fatherly bond with one of his neglected pupils, a big mental improvement for a man who's stated he wouldn't mind simply disappearing from sight. If Cronenberg and Jeffrey Boam decided to focus on one thing in adapting Stephen King's New England tragedy, it's the value of one man's importance in the world, making it almost a modern day It's A Wonderful Life with the protagonist having epiphanies based on the alternative future rather than an alternative present (also with serial killers, brain tumors and megalomaniacal presidential candidates). Though sadly, while George Bailey was allowed to wake up from the nightmare of never having a loving family, that's a reality that doesn't change for poor Johnny and his metaphorical plunge to the icy water beneath the bridge is inevitable.
Walken does have a family in Communion, but man does he put them through the ringer. While the Strieber clan spends a joyful Christmas Day together in their cozy upstate cabin, creatures do indeed stir all through the house that night and carry father Whitley off for probing and prodding and - well, you know what that's like. Philippe Mora, fresh off his tale of werewolf kangaroos, reimagines Santa's elves as little sexless grey humanoids (don't call them aliens!) sent to ruin a family's rural holiday. Before the vacation's over, a paranoid Whitley will be snapping at his son and pointing a shotgun at his wife's head. He may have come through as a parent by presenting his kid with a new bike ("I think Santa knows just about everything, don't you dad?"), but his own unwarranted gift of unearthly visions ruins the whole year for him, even Halloween (Thanksgiving seems be the one holiday immune to alien incursion... sorry, not aliens!)
Walken isn't known for his roles as a father; typically when he plays a dad, he's incorporating his sons into his criminal career (At Close Range) or living vicariously through their criminal career (Catch Me If You Can). And Communion isn't short on the ol' child endangerment, even though Whitley is trying to protect his son from falling victim to the same hallucinations and alleged abductions. Over the years I've struggled to comprehend the essence of the real Whitley Strieber's accounts of otherworldly visitation, whether there's a thematic idea behind them or he just wanted to create a "2-3-74" experience of his own (at the very least, they did inspire Darin Morgan's classic X-Files episode "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"). In Mora's movie (which Strieber didn't like), dealing with the visitors seems like a metaphor for receiving a horrible diagnosis and how difficult it is to live with your family when you realize you're going to die. The giant face of the grey man that Whitley embraces in the film's conclusion is the color of a malignant brain tumor, sort of like the one that's slowly killing Johnny in The Dead Zone. Whether or not that's the intention it feels appropriate: what's the worst possible gift you can receive? What else is more likely to ruin a holiday and negatively affect behavior in front of one's family than an unexpected death sentence? Only being framed for murder at a public Christmas tree lighting by a politician named after the actor who played Nosferatu, who in Batman Returns is played by Christopher Walken.
~ john cribbs
* It's interesting also that Frank's living situation is similar to Johnny's, except he lives with his single mother. Whether visiting the Dodd house and being shot by Frank's mom factors into Johnny's decision to get his own place and avoid the "creepy 30-something living with single elderly parent" scenario is left ambiguous.
FAST & FURRY-OUS
chuck jones, 1949.
chuck jones, 1979.
The 1949 debut of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner opens with the duo's initial chase. Observing his appetizing quarry through a set of binoculars, Wile E. brandishes knife & fork and straight-up barrels after the bird, then looks astonished as his perennial prey rockets down the road. Whether or not he realizes at this exact point that his pursuit has just become a career-long ambition and the ultimate Sisyphean nightmare, Wile E. instantly recognizes that he's going to need some mehanical assistance if he hopes to snack on a roadrunner drumstick any time soon.
In the middle of the cartoon, he fashions together an unlikely contraption from a refrigerator, an electric motor (manufactured by Acme, of course), a meat grinder and a pair of skis. The motor enables the fridge, worn like a backpack, to generate ice which the grinder in turn grates into snow, creating a frozen path for Wile E. to speed across in his skis. Quite unexpectedly, the operation does not go smoothly. The apparatus runs Wile E. off a cliff, creating a bridge for him until the ice runs out and the star-crossed canine goes plummeted to the desert floor below. Crushed under the heavy equipment and covered by the remaining snow, he holds up a sign that reads "Merry Xmas." This great gag also works figuratively: how many of us manage to glide across the great expanse of any given year, only to crash at the very end when December comes along and the carefully-concocted straight path suddenly evaporates?*
Freeze Frame, Jones' first Road Runner cartoon since leaving Termite Terrace in the mid-60's,** returned to this "manufactured snow" theme. Through research, Wile E. learns that roadrunners can be slowed down in the snow and therefore utilizes the Acme Little Giant Snow-Cloud Seeder to once again bring winter to the desert. Rather than confined to a single segment, the artificial winter lasts throughout the short. So we're treated to coyote-eating sled dogs, Acme Jet-Propelled Skis (back to the well, Wile E.?) and a giant snowball from under which our flustered hero emerges with a Santa beard (just like Elmer Fudd and the soap suds in Bob Clampett's An Itch in Time) and the "Merry Xmas" sign, 30 years after its first appearance.
Freeze Frame was created for the middle segment of the three-part Bugs Bunny's Looney Christmas Tales from 1979, the same program Martin Riggs is watching in his trailer with a gun sticking in his mouth in Lethal Weapon. It's not really implied, but does anyone doubt that catching a few minutes of the special temporarily brought Riggs out of his holiday-fueled suicidal funk? I mean Chuck Jones directed the greatest Christmas Special of all time, the friggin' Grinch. So even though the mulleted police sergeant is technically viewing the Christmas Carol segment of the show directed by Friz Freleng, I'm sure he's feeling high on that Chuck Jones-Christmas harmony. The only question is whether, unlike Wile E. Coyote, he can make it to the cliff at the other end.
~ john cribbs
* Jeez I'm being really negative with this list. I swear that I really do like Christmas - just important to acknowledge the bad along with the good.
** Jones' penultimate Road Runner cartoon Soup or Sonic, made for the TV special Bugs Bunny's Bustin' Out All Over in 1980, ends with Wile E. catching the Road Runner - true story!
That's all, folks: peace on earth, good will towards men, enjoy your holidays and clearly stay away from Lars Von Trier for the next few days.
~ DECEMBER 21, 2016 ~