THE BEST & THE WORST CHRiSTMAS FiLM
The Pink Smoke understands that there are good holiday movies, and there are bad holiday movies. In fact for every Die Hard, there are about 50 Fred Claus's. In this two-headed piece full of opinions, Eric Pfriender writes about the movie he thinks everybody should watch every December while the surlier John Cribbs warns everyone away from what he considers to be the Worst Christmas Movie Ever.
SO MANY SCARVES:
THE BEST CHRiSTMAS FiLM EVER MADE
A CHRiSTMAS TALE
arnaud desplechin, 2008.
~ by eric pfriender ~
I've been trying to get people to watch Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale for almost a decade. I saw it when it got its American release in 2008, bought it when Criterion put it out the next year and have watched it every year since. It's my own little Christmas tradition - literally, since I can never get anyone to watch it with me. Which is unfortunate, since it is easily one of my four or five favorite films made since the turn of the century.
I think one of the reasons it has been a tough sell is that it is so hard to describe. Desplechin took one of the most cliched scenarios imaginable, the "home for the holidays" movie, combined it with another cliche, the "cancer-stricken matriarch" picture, then proceeded to subvert the genres at every turn, making a film so full of life that it defies any attempt to encapsulate it in a pitch.
Nominally the film is about the Vuillards, a family from Roubaix. The children - depressed playwright Elizabeth, toxic fuck-up Henri and sweet-natured Ivan, all grown - return to the family home for the first time since Elizabeth banished Henri from the family six years earlier. They've all been invited because family matriarch Junon has been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer and needs a bone marrow transplant.*
But Junon is played by Catherine Denueve, Henri is played by Mathieu Almaric, and the movie is so rich, so stuffed with magic: there's a puppet show, a courtroom scene, a play-within-the-play, bagpipes on the soundtrack, a suicide attempt, an unrequited love subplot that doesn't even kick in until the 90-minute mark, secret hiding places in old houses, cigarettes, fireworks, a mythic wolf that may or may not live in the basement, fist fights, a good amount of holiday drinking, romantic confessions in the backseat of a car covered in snow, ancient hi-fi systems in tucked-away sanctuaries for listening to Chet Baker when you need a brief respite from the tumult of life, a DJ set at the community center because why not fucking throw that in there, and scarves. So many scarves.
Desplechin clearly took some lessons from his New Wave heroes; the film feels like it is evolving as it is unspooling from reel to reel, but it never feels out of control. Some scenes are melancholic, others verge on slapstick, but everything is sincere and everything is rendered with an excitement for life and for cinema, so even the sad scenes have a kind of infectious passionate energy. We are seeing exactly what he wants us to see, and feeling what he wants us to feel which, apparently, is everything. I want to live inside of this movie. I wish my life felt like this film, especially around the holidays.
One of the joys of Un Conte de Noel** is the way it nails the little recognizable details of family and the holidays. I've never seen the feeling of returning to one's childhood home rendered so precisely, or so viscerally. The way a house feels empty and then suddenly overstuffed and full of life once the children return home. The way Ivan plays records and Elizabeth does little chores - you can see them subtly slipping into their younger selves. Even just the way everyone sort of sits around in the kitchen with nothing much to do. An entire family crammed into the living room to watch The Ten Commandments on television, someone wedged in on the floor, a pillow tucked behind their head. So specific, and so spot on.
It's not just the kids who come home. Ivan brings his wife, who might have slept with someone else in the house 20 years ago, and their two children, Elizabeth brings her teenage son who is on leave from the psych ward after a suicide attempt, Elizabeth's Fields Medal-winning husband shows up, cousin Simon is home as well and Henri has brought Faunia, a new girlfriend whom everyone keeps pointing out has "an ass like Angela Bassett's."
The film is so packed with personalities and I find myself identifying with different things each viewing. Sometimes it is the way Henri can't keep his mouth shut and can't help himself from irritating everyone around him. Sometimes it is Junon's cold isolationism. Simon’s heartache, Ivan's joy at spinning records, Elizabeth's inability to understand her own sadness and need to control everything: there's something for everyone. So let me make my pitch one more time: do yourself a favor, please, and watch A Christmas Tale. It is truly great, and if you take my advice, you just might have your own little cinematic Christmas miracle.
* I've occasionally tried pitching the movie thusly: "It's as if The Royal Tenenbaums actually had a soul and took place in reality instead of inside a shoebox diorama," but while that is sort of accurate, it's really just me trolling Wes Anderson fan boys. I like Tenenbaums just fine.
** The film's title as it appears on screen is actually "Un Conte de Noel, Roubaix!" Roubaix is the name of the city where the film takes place, in the north of France. Most of the film's characters travel there by train from Paris. It would sort of be like if I made a film called "A Thanksgiving Movie, Hillsborough, New Jersey!"
THE WORST CHRiSTMAS FiLM EVER MADE
STAR iN THE NiGHT
don siegel, 1945.
We at The Pink Smoke defer to no one in our love for Don Siegel. The man took the system down from the inside, demolishing the formula for standard schmaltz churned out by the studios to create some of Hollywood's grittiest genre films of the 40's and 50's. Following that, he transitioned from expert journeyman to seasoned maverick with his great crime and western films of the 60's and 70's, stamping them with the trademark credit "A Siegel Film." The Big Steal, Riot in Cell Block 11, Private Hell 36, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Hell is for Heroes, The Killers, Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, The Shootist... his prolific career produced more masterpieces than the combined output of any 10 American directors working at the same time. An auteur before the phrase existed, a mentor to Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood, a driven and uncompromising businessman and filmmaker - one thing is for sure: they don't make them like Don Siegel no more.
But every artist has to start somewhere. And Don Siegel started by directing the worst Christmas movie ever made.
Having successfully gotten his foot in the door at Warner Brothers through various production work (including uncredited montage-directing on Casablanca), Siegel signed on to helm a low-budget, 20-minute film titled Star in the Night. The assignment was as cookie-cutter safe as his later projects were risky, involving a single set and a small cast with no big action sequences or special effects.
The movie does open with an effect, although I hestitate to call it "special." Three cowboys out in the middle of the desert late at night crooning "Jingle Bells" (note that these are apparently modern cowboys, unlike Lightning Tyrone and Johnny Sombrero from The Duel at Silver Creek) see a giant flashing star in the distance. Laden with loads of "purdy doo-dads" one of them impulsively purchased while window shopping at a nearby town, the trio decide to "mosey over" and investigate.
Let's just make sure that's clear: one of these manly cowpokes bought a bunch of trinkets for no fathomable reason. While one of his buddies implies that he was trying to make an impression on the attractive salesgirl, he claims that he did it because something about the act made him feel "all fine and warm-like." Because if there's one thing men who insist on living off the land in the age of cars and indoor bathrooms love, it's throwing away money.
Siegel then cuts to the source of the plasma-posing illumination: a cheap motel in the middle of the desert run by Nick Catapoli. (If "Nick's Place" is a reference to "Rick's Cafe" it's not made explicit. Don't worry, other references will be.) Nick is proud of a shitty neon sign in the shape of a star that signals his tiny operation across the barren land, distinguishing it from the salt flats and cacti travelers would presumably otherwise deputize as beds. Nick's pleased that his star will give his motel the edge over this fierce competition.
It also has to be mentioned that Nick, as played by J. Carrol Naish (Oscar nominee for Zoltan Korda's Sahara who later played the mad scientist in Al Adamson's Dracula vs. Frankenstein), has a thick Greek or Italian accent that makes him sound like Chico Marx ("That's-a more betta!") I don't hold this against the movie or even the actor, whose performance is very much of its time, but it certainly doesn't help.
Nick's Place turns out to be a nerve center for assholes. One cranky old lady complains about a group of men who are caroling in their room. A snooty business type gives Nick and his wife hell for improperly cleaning his expensive shirts. A couple check in and immediately demand more blankets because they've been in cheap motels before and the rooms are always cold. The wife suffers these folks good-naturedly and acquiesces to their demands (or at least responds sympathetically), but Nick looks like he's about to lose it.
An unshaven drifter stops by looking for a cup of coffee and a fire to warm himself for a few minutes. Nick informs him that this is "no flop-a joint" and insists he continue on his way. The drifter appeals to his Christian heart by pointing out that it's Christmastime, the one time of year when bros should be getting each other's backs. Nick finds the concept of the holidays to be hypocritical: so we're supposed to be good this one time of year, then go back to treating each other like garbage? What is Christmas but a reverse version of the Purge? "Peace, brotherhood and love," Nick attests, "is a lotta baloney."
This is a completely reasonable attitude. There is certainly a holiday facade that dictates we should all behave against our natural inclinations, for the sake of the season. Charles Dickens made a good case for want being felt much greater around this time of year, but the flip side of the coin suggests that a "good person" need only feel charitable when such an impulse is implied. The rest of the year, Nick opines, "everybody's stingy and mean."
Amazingly, Star in the Night sets out to correct this way of thinking by having all the jerks at the hotel be so touched by a certain event that I bet you haven't already guessed from the description of this fucking movie so far that they drop said jerkness and turn charitable and kind. For the sake of the season! 20 minutes long and this thing's got no idea what it's trying to say.
And are these pushy guests really such humbugs? Why the fuck are there a group of guys singing Christmas songs in a hotel room at night anyway? Are they on their way to a caroling competition? Is it not a legitimate request that they shut the shit up if their neighbor has to wake up early? (Nick's saintly wife offers empty platitudes to the complaining guest but does nothing to stop the singing, just stands there listening to it.) If a motel offers a laundry service, they should be responsible for any tears or ironing scorch marks left on the garment: the businessman rightly points this out when Nick shrugs and blames the company he sources his cleaning out to. Nick should be held accountable for the damages to the shirts or at least offer a refund for the service itself - if he wants to seek reparation from the service afterwards, that's up to him. And requesting a couple extra blankets at a motel? Gasp! Look, the lady might have come off a little condescending to cheap motels, but responding as if she's being totally unreasonable is just not good business. Stop being stingy with the blankets!
The only person who is being the least bit demanding is this homeless guy, trying to exploit the spirit of the holiday to get a free cup of joe. Look fella, the manager is either feeling philanthropic or he isn't. If he's not, don't guilt the guy into giving you something for free by taking on the role of the world's most humanitarian derelict. Lemme drop some hobo wisdom on ya'll: "Nobody sees the stars in the daytime, doesn't mean they aren't there." Very poetic Mr. Tramp, but I'm not seeing any coins and I'm guessing they really aren't there - so pay for your coffee or skedaddle to the nearest rest stop!
Once this cast of characters is routinely established, Siegel introduces us to a migrant couple who limp pathetically into the motel. The woman is pregnant and about to burst (friggin' Hayes Code - they have to whisper that she's pregnant) and they have nowhere to go. She's very weak and can't move without being supported by her husband - you know, like all pregnant women? Their names are Jose and Maria, and -
You have got to be fucking kidding.
Jose and Maria?? Why not just call them Senor and Senora Christ? Why not have Nick inform them that there's no room at the inn?
Incidentally, there's no room at the inn.
The motel is full! So instead Nick's wife sets them up in a room in the shed among the animals where - oh give me a break, seriously.
(The obvious question: why does Nick want the star to bring people around for miles if there are no cabins left?? This is poor business practice, unless of course the implication is that Nick is so goddamn sadistic he compels guests to his hotel in the middle of nowhere only to refuse them sanctuary. If so, what a prick.)
You can probably guess what happens from here. The blanket hoarders offer their blankets. The business type rips his good shirts to use for linen (just how ill-equipped is this motel that they don't have towels or sheets... or maybe a phone to call an ambulance??) All the alleged assholes chip in to aid the poor helpless pregnant lady, who turns her head ever so slightly in soft recognition of their sudden selflessness.
The three "wise cowboys" turn up and announce that they just bought lots of things: "Think the baby might like 'em?" I mean what fucking things did you buy, dude? If it's all googly-eyed walnuts and stressed-out Pepsi bottles you can keep that crap, thank you very much. (Or did God tell them which Pokemon is the baby's favorite?)
The infant turns out to a boy - jeez, couldn't have even changed that small detail? Everyone goes out to the shed to see the baby while a visibly affected Nick looks on in disbelief.
Again I have to ask: how has Nick been proved wrong exactly? Everybody has chipped in because the events are so clearly evocative of the story of Christmas. You're telling me that anybody, even Trump supporters, are going to recommend Nick kick a woman who's in labor out into the cold night of the desert? Nick doesn't believe good will exists, yet he's convinced by circumstances in which literally every person on the planet would want to appear helpful. He's so won over he even pours coffee for the smelly hobo.
Left alone in the lobby, a thoughtful Nick approaches a calendar with a giant illustration of the nativity scene. Just in case you missed the connection.
At least Siegel doesn't cut to the shed to correlate the scene with that illustration. Oh wait, he fucking does!
Released on Oct 13, 1945 - right after the war? is this really what our country needed?? - Star in the Night went on to win an Academy Award for Best 2-reel Short Subject. Unbelievable.
I was extremely nervous to look up what Siegel had to say about this movie in his autobiography. Was he proud of it? It won an Oscar - seems like you can't badmouth a project following an achievement like that, right? It's just not something that people within the industry would do. Of course, what's great about Siegel is that he was never "within" the industry.
"When I saw the completed film, I didn't like my work," Siegel admitted. "It was over-sentimental, cloying with syrup and gooey molasses. However, Warner liked it."
"Star in the Night won an Academy Award as the best two-reel short in 1945. It surprised me."
The complete lack of enthusiasm Siegel had going into this project should be evident by the fact that the man was Jewish. So was co-writer Saul Elkins, who also wrote Siegel's next short film Hitler Lives, which Siegel pitched to Jack Warner thinking the famed exec would turn it down based on the title alone. Not only did Warner green light it, he liked it so much he'd later claim that it was his idea and pet project.
I've never seen Hitler Lives, which Siegel describes as lots of archive war footage mixed with actors slanderously portraying evil German folk while a narrator warns that Nazism isn't dead and could very well be heading for America. Still sounds better than Star in the Night.
~ DECEMBER 19, 2016 ~